In the skies above wartime Norway, the Allied and Nazi forces are fighting for control of the country below. At the head of a fleet of naval fighter planes, Captain Richard Thomas Partridge homes in on a German bomber, blasting its engine to shreds. But both craft are damaged in the dogfight, crash-landing on the mountainside below. What follows next is an incredible story of cooperation and survival that will see both sides put aside their differences in order to make it out alive.
Even today, the mountains surrounding the Norwegian town of Ålesund are remote, inaccessible and wild. But 80 years ago, when German troops invaded the neutral country from the east, there were even fewer signs of civilization to be found among the icy hills and fjords. And when Partridge and his gunner Lieutenant Bostock tumbled out of their plane, there was nowhere to seek help.
Nearby, three crew members of the German bomber were facing a similar dilemma. Without equipment or supplies to sustain them in the snow-covered wilderness, their prospects looked grim. And as both groups faced up against each other, they realized that their need to survive was greater than any enmity between them.
More than 70 years after the two planes crashed into the Norwegian mountains, the movie Into The White was released. A dramatic retelling of the event, it depicts a fight for survival that transcends the politics of war. But what really happened out in the wilds of Ålesund, when five men from different sides of the conflict faced a shared enemy far greater than the threat they posed to one another?
Today, World War II is remembered as the biggest and bloodiest conflict in history, responsible for millions of deaths. But in its early stages, in the months following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, it was jokingly referred to as the Phoney War. For weeks on end, it seemed, the Nazis made little effort to expand their operations on the Western Front.
However, all that changed on April 9, 1940, when the Nazis invaded Norway. Months earlier, the Scandinavian country had declared neutral status, just as it had during World War I. But while the Norwegians had managed to escape that previous conflict largely unscathed, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party had other plans.
At the time, the German war effort was heavily dependent on iron ore from Sweden, which was imported via northern Norway. And with the outbreak of war, Hitler moved to secure access to this vital resource. Before long, the Nazis had occupied the cities of Trondheim, Oslo and Bergen, as well as the port of Narvik.
The Norwegian government, however, refused to surrender its authority to Hitler and his troops. And with support from the Allied forces, it fought back against the German occupation. Meanwhile, France and Britain plotted to retake Narvik, effectively cutting the Nazis off from Sweden and their supply of iron ore.
To that end, the Allies sent troops into Norway by both land and sea in an operation known as the Norwegian Campaign. And among them was Partridge, a commanding officer who had enlisted with the Royal Navy back in 1929, a decade before the war. Early in his career, the records state, he had decided to specialize in aviation.
After attending the Navy’s pilot training program, Partridge graduated in 1934. And for the next five years, he alternated between stints in aviation squadrons and assignments with the Royal Marines. Then, just months before the outbreak of World War II, he returned to the Navy and the Fleet Air Arm.
On April 24, 1939, Partridge was assigned to No. 800 Squadron as their commanding officer. Based on board the HMS Ark Royal, a British aircraft carrier, his crew flew a type of naval airplane known as a Blackburn Skua. With just two seats and one engine, these craft functioned as both fighters and bombers during the war.
On only his second day in command of No. 800 Squadron, Partridge and his men were on board the Ark Royal as it sailed into position. Some 120 miles from the Norwegian coast, the crew launched into battle, piloting their Skaus against the occupying German forces.
At roughly 12:30 p.m. on April 27, Partridge led a fleet of three Skaus as they took off from the Ark Royal. Their mission was to patrol the skies over Andalsnes, a port town surrounded by mountains in western Norway. And although they were many miles south of Narvik, their presence was vital to the Allies’ campaign.
Accompanying Partridge in his aircraft was Bostock, a gunner and radio operator who was the only other man in the plane. And as the small fleet headed off in the direction of Oslo, some 260 miles to the south, they encountered the enemy. There, north of the Norwegian capital, was a group of German bombers.
Typically, aircraft such as these Heinkel He 111 would have been escorted by a fighter jet. But Partridge and his men could see that these bombers had no such protection. Unsurprisingly, then, most of them flew away quickly when they saw the fleet of British Skua fighters closing in.
However, one German bomber refused to scatter and instead carried on steadfast with its mission. However, one German bomber pilot opted not to flee and instead carried on steadfast with its mission. With Lieutenant Horst Schopis at the controls, it also carried mechanic Josef Auchtor and gunner Hans Hauk as well as sergeant Karl-Heinz Strunk, their superior. However, the bomber was vastly outnumbered by Partridge’s plane and the other fighters, who soon began to close in.
Before long, all three British aircraft had launched an attack on the lone German bomber. And after sustaining damage to its engine, the Heinkel He 111 was forced to crash-land in the mountains some 20 miles south-east of Ålesund. But as they watched the injured crew climb out of their battered plane below, Partridge and Bostock soon realized that they were also in trouble.
In the dogfight, it turned out, Partridge’s Skua had also sustained damage, ultimately causing the engine to sputter and die. By that time, the British plane was essentially functioning as a heavy and cumbersome glider. Without power, the commander maneuvered the struggling craft towards a frozen lake below.
Using his skill as a pilot, Partridge managed to land the Skua without landing gear in a manner that allowed him and Bostock to escape unharmed. But although the plane was not severely damaged, it was of little use to its crew. Knowing that they would need to somehow reach civilization on foot, the men removed some essential gear from the stranded craft.
Next, Partridge and Bostock destroyed the homing beacon mounted on the Skua and opened fire on its petrol tanks. And after throwing in some ammunition for good measure, they watched the plane go up in flames. Satisfied that they had left nothing of value behind, the two men set off towards a hut that they had spotted in the distance.
According to reports, the trek was difficult, with snow that often reached up to Partridge and Bostock’s knees. Eventually, however, they made it to the building: a hut used for shelter by men hunting reindeer in the mountains. Grateful, they made their way inside and began to warm their freezing bodies.
Sadly, the comfort and peace of the hut was about to be shattered in the most unnerving way. Just minutes after their arrival, Partridge and Bostock heard the unmistakable sound of a whistle being blown outside the shelter. Sneaking a glimpse through the window, they saw three armed German soldiers approaching.
As Partridge and Bostock soon realized, these men were the surviving crew of the plane that they had shot down. Landing close to the spot where the British Skua had come to a rest, the Germans had not been as lucky. Although Strunk, Schopis and Auchtor had all survived, Hauk had been killed in the crash.
With little in the way of options, Partridge and Bostock decided to confront their enemy face-to-face. Although both crews were in the same predicament, the British men were reluctant to tell the truth. Understandably, they feared that the Germans would not be amenable if they knew that they were dealing with the men who had shot down their plane and killed their compatriot.
Thinking on their feet, Partridge and Bostock decided to lie. Rather than admit that they were the men responsible for the Germans’ fate, they told them that they were also the crew of a bomber. Their plane, they claimed, had been shot down by a fighter from the Luftwaffe. And even though language proved a barrier, the two groups eventually reached an understanding.
Apparently sharing a mutual dislike of fighter pilots, the two crews were able to reach an uneasy truce. However, the hut was small, and the idea of the German and British men sharing such tight quarters overnight must have seemed too strange to consider. Instead, Partridge and Bostock invited their enemy to take their place while they left in search of an alternative shelter.
After this deal was negotiated, Partridge and Bostock set out once more into the snow. Luckily, however, they did not have far to go. In the distance, they spotted a chalet which turned out to be the Grotli Hotel, its doors and windows shut up for the winter season. Letting themselves inside, the two men found enough bedding and food to make themselves comfortable for the night.
In the morning light, the Germans spotted the Grotli Hotel and decided to strike out for this superior shelter, leaving the cramped and bare hut behind. When they reached the building, Partridge and Bostock realized that they had little choice but to share what meager rations they had found. Together, the two crews raided the cupboards and sat down together over a shared breakfast.
Soon, it became apparent that both crews were in dire straits. Stranded in the Norwegian wilderness, neither the British nor the Germans had any way of communicating with their superiors. Moreover, they knew that nobody was aware of their shared predicament – making it unlikely that any rescue missions would be sent.
On top of that, the Grotli Hotel was only stocked with basic provisions, and the men knew that food would soon run out. As such, they decided to take matters into their own hands. Forming an unlikely alliance, Partridge and Strunk decided to explore the surrounding area together and search for signs of life nearby.
Surprisingly, the two men did not have to travel very far. Just moments after leaving the hotel, reports claim, Partridge and Strunk encountered a Norwegian patrol. Apparently hoping to obscure his real nationality, the German sergeant allegedly shouted, “English!” at the locals, who were still fighting against the occupation.
According to an official report of the incident, Strunk’s heavily-accented claim was enough to briefly satisfy the curious Norwegians. But when they turned to deal with Partridge, the German took advantage of the brief distraction. Having left the hotel to watch the action unfold, Bostock arrived just in time to see the sergeant reach for his weapon.
Whatever Strunk’s plan might have been, he did not get a chance to enact it. Spotting the movement, one of the Norwegian men shot and killed the German sergeant. With their superior dead, Schopis and Auchtor decided that their best course of action was to surrender. Meanwhile, Partridge and Bostock struggled to convince the patrol that they really were British.
Eventually, with the help of English money and the labels on their clothes, Partridge and Bostock convinced the Norwegians that they were telling the truth. Amazingly, the men even realized a staggering coincidence: that one member of the patrol was the brother-in-law of the commander’s good friend. After that, communication between the two groups came with much more ease.
Despite Partridge and Bostock’s bond with the Norwegians, however, the fate of their surviving companions was sealed. After being handed over to the Allies, Schopis and Auchtor ended up in a prisoner of war camp, where they passed the remainder of the war. Meanwhile, the British men decided to make their way to Ålesund, where they could rejoin their fellow troops.
After trekking for 21 miles across the snow, however, Partridge and Bostock found that Ålesund had been all but destroyed by the Germans. And when the promised evacuation ships did not materialize, the pair commandeered a vehicle and drove themselves east to Andalsnes. Eventually, they were able to board the HMS Manchester, returning to Britain and leaving Norway behind.
Sadly, the war wasn’t over for the British survivors of this epic ordeal. Less than two months after crash-landing in Norway, both men were shot down during a raid on the Scharnhorst, a German battleship. Tragically, Bostock lost his life, while Partridge was captured and dispatched to a prisoner of war camp in Germany.
Although five men had survived the initial crashes in the mountains outside Ålesund, only two men made it to the end of the war alive. Three decades later, Partridge and Schopis reunited as friends – a relationship that they continued for the rest of their lives. Despite everything that had transpired, the pair ultimately shared an unbreakable bond.
When Partridge passed away in 1990, Schopis was left as the only survivor of the unlikely events that took place near Ålesund during the Norwegian Campaign. And later, he was invited onto the set of Into The White, the movie that told a dramatized version of the story. Tragically, he died in 2011, just one year before its release.
Although Into The White received mixed critical reviews, it helped to cement the story of Partridge, Bostock and their German companions in history. And like many tales from the battlefield, it highlights just how similar soldiers on opposite sides of a conflict can be. Hopefully, this is a sentiment that will be remembered for many years to come.