Some stories are imprinted in our collective memory. Tales of men and women who have defeated insurmountable odds in unforgiving landscapes and escaped to tell the tale. In all the wide world of amazing survival stories out there, some fly a bit below the radar: but that doesn’t mean they are any less remarkable.
Take for instance the story of Jan Baalsrud, the World War II Norwegian soldier who managed to make it safely through an inhospitable wasteland all while being chased by relentless German soldiers. And while you may think that sounds incredible on the surface, the real details of the story are truly beyond belief…
Jan is Born
Jan Baalsrud was born in Oslo, Norway on December 17, 1917. The First World War was less than a year from coming to a close, and it was clear that as a child born into wartime, Jan was destined to fight. He moved to Kolbotn in the early 1930s, which was where he lived until he entered the military in 1939.
As a young, trained instrument maker, Jan was remarkably adept at his craft. He was beloved by his clients and appreciated for the beauty and professionalism of his work. Nevertheless, when the Germans invaded in WWII, Jan asked to help the anti-Nazi resistance…
World War II
In 1940, the Germans invaded Norway and Jan came to the aid of his people. He fought in Vestfold but was forced to flee. Later, he escaped to Sweden but was convicted of espionage, of which he was most certainly guilty, and eventually expelled from the country.
Coming to England
After Sweden, Jan journeyed across the world. In 1941, he found his way to Great Britain, having first traveled through the Soviet Union, Africa, and even the United States. In 1943, he was stationed to a crew of fellow Norwegian commandos assigned to a dangerous mission in Bardufoss, Norway…
Their mission was to destroy a German air control tower at Bardufoss. They were also assigned to recruit more soldiers for the Norwegian resistance movement. Unfortunately, the mission was dangerous compromised when Jan and his soldiers accidentally made contact with an unaligned shopkeep who betrayed them to the Germans.
The Next Day
On March 29, Jan and his men reconvened on the fishing boat Barattholm. It was the morning after their colossal blunder and they were sure that the Germans were going to be after them before long. Before they could come up with a new plan, the Germans attacked their vessel: which was stocked full with 8 tons of explosives…
Try as they might, the soldiers could not force back the German attack. They were surrounded, and every random bullet threatened to turn the boat into a fiery inferno. The crew tried to take the boat out to sea, but they knew they weren’t going to make it. Jan’s men were being killed all around him.
Scuttle the Ship
With few options left to them, the Norwegians decided to scuttle the ship and detonate the explosives using a time delay fuse. They lit the fuse and escaped in a small boat. Under cover of the explosion and before it too could be sunk by the Germans, Jan dove into the water. But his hasty departure had left him woefully unprepared for what came next…
While some of Jan’s fellow soldiers also managed to swim to shore, Jan was the only one to evade German capture. His brief trip into the frigid Arctic waters, however, had not done him any favors. Soaking wet and missing one of his boots and socks, he ran to a nearby snow gully where he managed to subdue and kill the leading German Gestapo officer.
Having stolen the German officer’s boots and pistol, Jan went into hiding. For two months Jan evaded capture with the help of Norwegian patriots. Eventually, though, he had to make his way into the harsh Norwegian wilderness in order to keep one step ahead of the Gestapo. The journey was no walk in the park….
Living in the Ice
Living in the cold, unforgiving wilderness was a constant struggle for survival. Having lost his big toe to a gunshot before the boat explosion, Jan had trouble hiking for long periods. Nevertheless, he couldn’t rest for too long either, lest he succumbs to hypothermia or despair.
Blind and Cold
Then, just when it seemed as though it couldn’t get any worse, Jan found himself standing on top of snowy hilltop at the very start of an avalanche. The avalanche caused Jan to fall 300 feet into the snow and left him with a bad concussion. Almost blind, hallucinating, and severely injured, Jan wandered alone in the snow for days…
Operate on Himself
He survived the avalanche and soon as if fate had finally begun to look out for him, Jan happened upon a wooden hut at Revdal. The hut, which he called the “Hotel Savoy” gave him a much-needed chance for respite. But it was here that he came upon a very unwelcome discovery: he had contracted blood poisoning.
There were no doctors in sight, no hospitals, no antibiotics of any kind, so Jan was forced to operate on himself. He began to cut into his own legs with a pocket knife, slowly drawing blood in an attempt to release the infection that he believed was killing him. His self-operations were able to stave off infection for a time. But soon Jan had other problems…
Jan was still trying to outrun the German patrols that knew Norwegian rebels were still living in the wilderness. Jan’s legs still weren’t completely healed but he had to move on. He fought the inclement weather and encroaching Germans for 27 days before his condition finally took another terrible turn.
Jan lay in the snow, his legs painful beyond imagining. It was then he realized what had happened, he’d succumbed to frostbite and the gangrene from his toes was spreading into his legs. Drawing on every remaining ounce of his courage and determination he had, Jan amputated nine of his toes before he was finally found by fellow Norwegians…
Sled to Safety
The Norwegians loaded Jan onto a stretcher and took him into Finland, where they put him into the care of a tribe of Sami, native Scandinavians. From Finland, Jan was transported into neutral Sweden once more. Doctors were able to cure his infection but were impressed with his self-diagnosis. His forethought and sacrifice had actually saved his feet.
Jan spent the next seven months in a Swedish hospital before being flown back to Great Britain. Despite his terrible injuries, he still wanted to do his part for the war effort. However, the road to wellness was not an easy one and Jan Baalsrud now had to learn how to walk again, this time with no toes at all…
Despite the unbelievable struggle of his recovery, Jan was able to push past his pain and learn to walk. Afterward, he traveled to Scotland to help train other Norwegian patriots like himself, before rejoining the war effort in Norway as an agent. He remained there until the Allies were victorious in 1945.
Free from Germany
The end of the war signaled the end of Germany’s occupation of Norway. He was subsequently appointed as an Honorary Member of the British Empire for his service during the war. He traveled back to Oslo and reunited with his family and lived there with them until his death on December 30, 1988.