Jan Sigurd Baalsrud was born in Oslo on December 13, 1917 and is best known for one of the wildest and most unfathomable survival stories from WWII, becoming a Norwegian folk hero in the process.
In 1939 Jan graduated as an instrument-maker but in 1940, he went to Vestfold to fight against the German invasion. The battle was soon lost however and after escaping to Sweden, where he was convicted of espionage and expelled, he travelled to Britain via the USSR, Africa, and USA, eventually arriving in 1941 where he then joined the “Norwegian Independent Company 1”, a unit created by the British for undertaking commando raids in Norway.
In March 1943, Jan and 11 other Norwegian commandos and crewmen left Scotland to establish a presence in the northern port city of Tromso, from where they could sabotage German military operations. Their first mission was compromised however when Jan and his fellow soldiers, seeking a trusted resistance contact, accidentally contacted a civilian shopkeeper of the same name, who then betrayed them to the Germans.
Realising that their first mission was known to the Germans, the only option was to detonate the 8 tons of explosives they had brought with them. With the Germans in pursuit, the men lit a time-delayed fuse and then swam some 70m to the shore through ice-cold waters. Jan was the only one to climb ashore however, as his fellow countrymen were all either shot or apprehended. Spotting a gully in the snowy hillside, Jan ran into it and took cover, shooting two of the four German soldiers who were pursuing him. The two remaining soldiers withdrew, giving Jan the necessary time to run further up the snowy gully.
Thus began Jan’s survival story in which, with just one boot, having lost the other swimming, a soaked uniform hardening into a shell of ice, no map, no food, no water, and no plan, Jan ran, staggered, hobbled, skied and sled with frostbite and snow blindness for 9 weeks through Norway’s frozen fjords, the target of a nationwide manhunt.
During this time, Jan’s feet froze solid, an avalanche buried him up to his neck, he wandered in a snowstorm for 3 days and he was entombed alive in snow for another 4 days and abandoned under open skies for 5 more. Alone for 2 more weeks in a cave, he used a knife to amputate 9 frostbitten toes to stop gangrene spreading. He spent the last several weeks tied to a stretcher, near death, as teams of Norwegian villagers dragged him up and down hills and snowy mountains to Finland and then with the assistance of the local Sami people, eventually to safety in Sweden. Despite his amazing survival skills and resilience, he would surely have died without the help of numerous local Norwegians, who risked their lives in so doing.
After 7 months in a Swedish hospital, Jan was flown back to Britain, where he helped train other Norwegian resistance fighters. After a long struggle to learn to walk properly again, Jan himself eventually returned to Norway as an agent, where he remained in active service until the war ended.
Jan was appointed an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire and the St. Olav’s medal with Oak Branch, a Norwegian military award. Every year a remembrance march takes place in his honour where participants follow his extraordinary escape route. Numerous films and books have also been written to tell the story of his remarkable survival.
For decades, Jan’s escape made him a national folk hero, even though the man himself remained frustratingly opaque, almost unknowable. Yet, with the passage of time, the German occupation and the extraordinary risks and acts of bravery taken by ordinary citizens like Jan during this time are becoming forgotten.
Although certainly the hero of a great survival story, Jan was far more than that as he represents all those heroes within the resistance movement, ordinary citizens whose resilience, bravery and self-lessness created the beneficent social democracy that Norway prides itself on being today.
The TIDLÖS team salutes the forgotten hero of the resistance, Jan Sigurd Baalsrud, who died on December 30, 1988 at the age of 71.