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The Telavåg Tragedy

26 April 2011

Sixty-nine years ago today, on April 26, 1942 the Germans dynamited the entire village of Telavåg, Norway and sent all of its inhabitants to prison and concentration camps for their involvement in anti-Nazi activities.

In the 1940s Telavåg (pronounced similar to “Tell-ah-vogue”) was a small but productive fishing village on an island about one hour’s drive from Bergen, although at that time it was only accessible by boat.

In May 1940, just one month after the invasion of Norway, two men from Telavåg, Lauritz Telle, a 63-year-old fisherman, and his eldest son, Lars, began organizing secret boat trips from Telavåg to Shetland.

Home of Lauritz and Martha Telle in the foreground. (All photos on this page used with the permission of the North Sea Traffic Museum.)

People needing to escape the Gestapo for their participation in illegal activities and those who wanted to help the British Army would wait in hiding at the Telle farmhouse until a boat was ready.

In return, the British Army sent boatloads of weapons, ammunition, radios, and other supplies for the growing resistance movement in Norway. These Lars hid in boathouses and in the crevices along the rocky coastline.

Fishing boats provided the transportation to and from Shetland as they were the only type of boat allowed off the coast of Norway by the Germans, but they were slow and the crossing took about 30 hours in good weather. Naval officers in Shetland secretly armed the boats with anti-aircraft machine guns.

The M/S Fernanda, which left Telavåg on Sept. 21, 1941 for Lerwick with 36 people on board.

For two years Lauritz and Lars had luck on their side: Lauritz was a sailor who knew the North Sea routes in and out. The out-of-the-way fishing village of Telavåg was far from any German forts, and remote enough for people to own illegal radios without anyone raising any eyebrows. The boats could leave Telavåg in the middle of the night and be too far out to sea by daylight for the German planes to spot. From May 1940 until January 1942, at least 136 people fled to Shetland via Telavåg (although some reports have listed as many as 500). The trafficking of people and weapons did not happen just in Telavåg, but occurred all along the western coast of Norway during the war and was referred to as “The Shetland Bus.”

In the spring of 1942 someone tipped off the Gestapo in Bergen about Lauritz and Lars. It is difficult to imagine who, from such a tight and small community, could have done such a thing. Was it Per Lie, the local sheriff? His wife Rebekah was said to have cheered when the Germans invaded Norway, and everyone knew her store carried far more supplies than any other store in the area.

After the war Per published a small book called “The Truth about What Happened at Telavåg” in an attempt to clear his name. He accused Lars of being simply too naive and telling too many people about the operations. He also offered the theory that a local man got mad at Lars for having sold him a boat with a hole in it. This man complained that he was going to tell the Gestapo about the family’s illegal radio.

On April 23 the Gestapo sent a man disguised as a Bible salesman to Telavåg to see what information he could gain. One day later they sent a spy disguised as someone wanting to go “on a fishing trip” – the code phrase for getting a boat to Shetland. Lauritz made arrangements with the man, but his wife soon found out that they had been given a false name and address and that they might be in danger. Then, on April 26, four German soldiers arrived at the Telle farmhouse in the middle of the night, hoping to surprise any would-be escapers waiting in Lauritz’s loft. Little did they know that on this particular night Lauritz was hiding two armed secret agents sent by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Emil Gustav Hvaal (codename ANCHOR) and Arne Værum (codename PENGUIN) were to wait in Telavåg for further orders before beginning operations elsewhere in Norway. Lauritz’s 13-year-old son, Åge, was also asleep in the room.

Special Agent Emil Gustav Hvaal, age 35

Special Agent Arne Værum, age 24

When the Germans entered the loft they ordered everyone to get out of bed and one hit Værum on the head with the butt of his gun. Værum, who had been asleep with four firearms strapped to his chest, fired immediately, killing one of the Gestapo. Hvaal began firing, but was shot nine times. Hvaal survived and managed to kill another German officer. Åge stood frozen with his arms up in the air. The other two German officers ran to telephone their headquarters in Bergen.

Commissioner Terboven and his men at Telavåg on April 30, 1942. (Terboven is in sunglasses.)

The head Nazi commissioner in Norway, Josef Terboven, traveled to Telavåg himself to decide and oversee the town’s punishment.

Lauritz and his wife Martha, together with their son Åge, were taken to the Gestapo headquarters in Bergen where they were interrogated and tortured. Lars was taken to a concentration camp near Oslo with 18 other men from Telavåg believed to have had some connection to the illegal boat traffic. All other men from Telavåg between the ages of 16-60 were sent to the Sachenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin. 31 of these men died in the camp. The women and children were taken to a prisoner’s camp a few hours from Bergen.

Marching of the men of Telavåg down to the boats that would take them to the concentration camp.

One man, only 8 at the time of the punishment, remembered watching the men of the village walk down to the boats that would carry them to the camps. Among them was his father. His mother ran out of the house with their ration card and urged him to run and give it to his father. He tried his best, but two German soldiers pointed their guns at him. He had no idea that this would be the last time he ever saw his father. No one had any idea what was happening; some thought they were just being taken for questioning.

Commissioner Terboven also ordered the total destruction of Telavåg, and that its name be removed from all maps. Telavåg was so fully obliterated that not even the wells remained.

The destruction of Telavåg.

The story of Telavåg is known throughout Norway, and in the 1940s it was reported throughout Europe as well. Telavåg was one of the few towns in Western Europe punished by the German’s with total destruction.

The German leader for civil operations in Bergen, Heinrich Christen, wrote in his diary about how sorry he was to have lost two of his best men in Telavåg. About the people of Telavåg he wrote: “A hard destiny, but it was necessary to hinder the coast people from repeating such foolishness.”

Accounts from World War II often seek to portray the glory and heroism of war, but this story has no heroic ending. All of the smuggled ammunition was confiscated and no resistance operation out of Telavåg took place. The Germans continued to occupy Norway for another two years.

The wife of Emil Hvaal was allowed to visit her husband in the hospital before he was taken away to the prison camp where he would be executed. Her parting words to him were “Vær norsk.”

Vær norsk – Be Norwegian.

A world of meaning exists behind these two small words that I can hardly begin to comprehend. Especially as I cannot imagine the same being said in America. “Be American.” What would that mean? And would I be proud of it?

In May of 1945, upon learning of her husband’s fate, Kamilla Hvaal wrote to the police chief in Bergen, “I hope that my husband got to do a little for his country as he was so eternally in love with it.”

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. RHR permalink
    26 April 2011 16:51

    No resistance operation ever took place? That’s not true, or did you mean no one got to use any of the smuggled ammo from Telavåg, or that the 2 agents mentioned never got to carry out any operations? The resistance movement did a lot less then most Norwegians think though, since what little they did gets a lot of attention (what they did do a lot of was intelligence gathering)

    • jenaconti permalink
      26 April 2011 18:02

      Thanks for your comment and I have corrected what I wrote. You are quite right that there were several successful resistance operations in Norway — especially in connection with the Linge Company. I meant, and should have said, that the shipment of arms into Telavåg and training that took place in that area was, in the end, futile. And I guess I should also add that shipping 136 people to the safety of Shetland was certainly not un-heroic!

  2. Sherry permalink
    8 October 2013 06:04

    My married name is Telle, and we were told it was a German name and that my husband’s grandparents escaped Germany just before the war. As both of his grandparents refused to talk about their families we are in the dark. It is fascinating that there were so many Telles there. Does anyone know if it is a Norwegian name or a German name?

    • 8 October 2013 06:52

      Hi Sherry! Germany and Norway were linked under the Hanseatic League from the 13-17th c., so there are many, many German loan words and German last names in Norway. My understanding is that in Norway at the time of the Telavåg tragedy last names were created either from the place where people lived, or from the father’s first name, so “Telle” would have come from “Telavåg”.

  3. David Carroll permalink
    12 January 2016 19:12

    Thomas R. Flagel, in his book THE HISTORY BUFFS GUIDE TO WORLD WAR II states that all the men of the village were put into five barns and the women and children into a church and that all six buildings were burned to the ground this killing every villager. Conflicting reports?

    • 13 January 2016 09:11

      Hi David, Thanks for your comment. That’s an interesting version of events, and certainly more dramatic! I have been to the museum in Telavåg and they would dispute Flagel’s account. A few young children and grandchildren of those alive in WWII are still around to confirm the version of events presented at the museum, and repeated above in my account.

  4. terry jackson permalink
    6 February 2017 22:41

    Hi I am English and I lived in Televag for the summers for three months between 1957 and 1963, it was the best part of my childhood, it was like living a childhood dream, the people of Televag treated me as one of their family, they are fantastic and resilient people. So all the injustice that the Germans inflicted on them during the war they rose above it and became stronger for it. I am now 67 years old and they still remain a major part of my thoughts. and conversation
    Vaer Norsk

    • Terry Jackson permalink
      6 February 2017 22:48

      What is the cost to subcribe

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