A little-known aspect of the worldwide confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States of America was the surprisingly extensive Spying activities going on in the Norwegian Arctic. In this remote corner of the globe the great powers were fighting for dominance in the shadows of the Polar Night…
Norway, as has been written in a previous article ( The Lyngen Line: the last barrier against the Soviet Union), was a founding-member of NATO when the US-led organization was established in 1948. As such, Norway very much relied on the United States for its defense and had to take side in the Cold War which was brewing and slowly engulfing the whole world. As a result, Norway, and especially its Northern edge, bordering Russia was a very important battlefield in which a secret battle was taking place: the battle for information, fought not by soldiers but by spies.
The most famous Cold War spying affair involving North-Norway took place the first of May 1960. It involved the CIA’s secret program named Operation Grand Slam and consisted in sending a spying U2-type plane flying over the Soviet Union to take a series of aerial photographs of Russia’s military installations. The operation was planed and launched in Pakistan, then a strong US ally was supposed to see the plane flown by pilot Gary Powers crossing Western Soviet territory and ultimately landing in the military airport of Bodø, Arctic Norway. Unfortunately for the CIA operatives, Power’s plane was discovered and shot down by Soviet missiles, near-immediately leading to a critical international crisis which was used as the base for Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed 2015 film Bridge of Spies. At the height of the crisis, Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev even threatened to use the atomic weapon to flatten Bodø as a possible consequence for Norway’s cooperation with the United State’s spying program. Practically overnight, all the world’s attention seemed to be directed towards the little town of Bodø, 66 degrees North in Arctic Norway and its possible terrible fate… Ultimately though, the crisis was thankfully averted through diplomatic channels and Bodø still stands un-bombed today, but this was not to be the end of spying activities in the far North, far from it…
More than a decade later, in 1973, the Soviet authorities were looking differently at North-Norway. The region was developing fast and in Tromsø, the region’s largest city, a university had even opened its doors a few years earlier. Thanks to documents released by Wikileaks, it is now know that Moscow had plans to open a Consulate in Tromsø, apparently in order to establish a spying network in the Arctic town. Indeed, just a few years after 1968 and with a newly-opened university, Tromsø was teaming with leftist and communist sympathizers who could eventually be persuaded to assist the Soviet authorities in gathering information. This rather daring plan was however never implemented as the American authorities made it clear to their Norwegian counterparts that they would not accept the establishment of such an institution given the current geo-political climate and the plans were soon scrapped. But actual spying did indeed take place in the region as it became known a decade later…
In Norway’s Northernmost county of Finnmark several spying scandal took place during the Cold War. The first one was that of Selmer Nilsen, a young fisherman who had been recruited by the Soviet authorities in order to gather first-hand information about the scale of American involvement in Arctic Norway. Nilsen was actually involved in the U2 affair as he provided the Soviets with a picture of a U2 plane in Bodø airport, further establishing Norway -and America’s- culpability but was later arrested for leaking this information. Another much-publicized spying scandal involved Arne Treholt, a politician from the Labour party in the early eighties. Treholt, who took several minor roles in the government but ended up working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was in fact a secret agent who leaked military information not only to the Soviet Union but also to Iraq. After obtaining information about the strategically invaluable defense system of the Finnmark garrison of Furuhøyden, Treholt was arrested, on his way to meet informers in Vienna and was sentenced to eight years in jail. His case was the last high-profile spying Scandal to involve North-Norway but who knows how many more spying operations took place in the Norwegian Arctic but were never discovered? The future might, or might not tell about these…
- (1) The spy plane that sat Bodø on the map. article from the Norwegian National broadcasting corporation NRK.
- (2) The U2 affair: American spying could have engulfed Bodø. From the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.
- (3) Spying in Finnmark, now and under the cold war. Article from the Norwegian newspaper IFinnmark.
- (4) Pressured for Spying-base in Tromsø. Article in the Norwegian newspaper Nordlys.
- (I) A Spy’s Spy by flickr user Emmory Allen. © 2011. Published under Creative Commons license.
- (II) A map of the intended route of the U2 plane during the Operation Grand Slam. Image from the US government.
- (III) Khrushchev inspecting the remains of the U2 plane. Image from the US government.
- (IV) Arne Treholt in the company of the Soviet Spies Titov and Lopatin. Photo published by the Norwegian Police Agency. © 1983/ 2009. Published under Creative Commons license.
- (V) Tromsø in the middle of the day during the Polar Night. taken from Flickr. © Lyonel Perabo 2016.