The Norwegian border guards report an impending attack by Russia on June 6, 1968
“I was sitting on the watchtower when tanks suddenly shot at us. In these short and nerve-wracking moments, I was certain that we would die, ”former border guard Harald Kjelstad said in an interview with the Norwegian television broadcaster NRK.
His workplace was one of the approximately 10 meter high wooden towers, the top of which is glazed on three sides. The observation stations along the Norwegian-Russian border look like a high-raked forest hut.
His garrison feels on the verge of a third world war when 290 tanks and 15,000 soldiers march along the common border with Russia on June 6, 1968 and make no secret of their presence. Fighter jets are buzzing in the air, Russia has brought up everything it can show in terms of military effectiveness.
It is arguably the most dramatic hour and day in Norway during the Cold War. The main concern is a possible upcoming nuclear strike against Norway. The Norwegian government has been trying to keep this incident secret for 30 years.
The cause of a possible Russian intervention
The world was at an unprecedented high point in the Cold War in the 1960s. Norway had to painfully recognize its vulnerability during the Second World War and subsequently became a founding member of NATO in 1949.
The conservative Otto Grieg Tidemand has been Defense Minister in Norway since 1965 and travels to Moscow as a member of a NATO delegation.
People are tired of the constant tension and gesture between the Warsaw Pact and NATO and see this meeting as a sign of a possible relaxation in the East-West conflict.
The Soviet counterpart of the Norwegian Minister of Defense, Marshal Andrei Gretsko, emphasizes the good relationship between Norway and Russia. Just like Tidemand, he fought against the German Wehrmacht in World War II as an intrepid fighter pilot.
But this fact is the only connection between the two hardliners, the two of them cannot begin to understand each other.
Russia does not want NATO troops in Norway
Russia is on the one hand Norway’s NATO membership, and on the other hand the maneuvers of its members in Norway are a thorn in the side. You make no bones about it. Tidemand counters with the displeasure of Russian espionage and the repeated intrusion of Soviet submarines into its own waters.
An impressive demonstration at the gates of Moscow
One of the program highlights for NATO guests is a demonstration at a Russian military training area. But this demonstration escalates the summit between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Because in front of the NATO delegation, an obvious nuclear strike against Norway is simulated, as well as a successful invasion by Russian troops in a few days.
Understandably, Tidemand literally explodes and threatens to leave immediately. However, the mood can calm down somewhat, with the atmosphere of the conversation reflecting the temperatures of the Cold War.
Life in the Norwegian watchtower
NATO’s visit to Moscow was almost eight months ago. In Norway, maneuvers are carried out independently of the gesture at the time, two in number. The former merciless enemy Germany strives for friendship and takes part in such a maneuver in gate paths for the first time to protect Norway with the allies from their former friend and today’s enemy.
The border guards monitor the Norwegian border, there are 120 per shift. There are seven watchtowers on the almost 200 km long border between east and west, between the southernmost border point Treriksrøysen in the Pasvik valley and the northernmost border point Jakobselv on the Barents Sea. The lightest thing the border guards carry is their small-caliber weapon, the sharpest thing they have with them is their high-resolution binoculars. At the top of the observation chamber with its windows pointing in all directions, the telephone hangs with a direct line to the garrison line, and there is also a radio in the lower area. From the wooden towers you can look far into Russia.
In the event of war, they should wage a guerrilla war until NATO can intervene on the ground. Knowing well that an attack means death sentence.
In the week of June 6, 1968, the watch begins at 12 p.m. and ends at 8 a.m. Fog and light snow blowing prevent a good view to the east today. And so you do your duty and fight against monotony and fatigue.
The upcoming Russian attack on Norway on June 6, 1968
The heavy engines of Russian tanks roar out of nowhere on the other side of the river Pasvik. There is a lot of movement on the nearby roads of Russia, around 290 Russian T54 tanks, another 4,000 vehicles, paratroopers and more than 10,000 soldiers position themselves and aim at the watchtowers and other selected destinations on the Norwegian side.
Everyone is immediately wide awake and the tour in the barracks is called just as quickly. Gunshots can be heard and the cannon muzzle flash can be seen. If there had been movement on the Russian side at one point or another along the border in the past few days, there was no sign of an impending invasion.
All of Norway’s leading military personnel were in the Troms region during this period to carry out the NATO “Polarexpress” maneuver, and the officers left behind seemed to be completely overwhelmed by the acute threat.
The border guards on site are no longer left to and from their positions and report all movements day and night via the phones and wait for further instructions.
The military in Finnmark has nothing to oppose. Neither tanks nor other heavy weapons. For the border guards, who are simply afraid for their lives, the willingness to shoot at any Russian who crosses the border with the insight that, in the event of an emergency, flee into the wilderness and hide as quickly as possible changes.
Suddenly some tanks shoot at the turrets, the Norwegian border guards see the muzzle flashes and wait for the impact. But only the bang comes. Tension, fear of death and sudden relief alternate at breakneck speed. Again she missed a shot. When the Norwegian soldiers leave the tower, they are sighted by the weapons of the Russians. Pure psychological terror, however, as the attacked increasingly realize, with practice ammunition.
Only a hair’s breadth before the war
The Norwegian Defense Minister Otto Grieg Tidemand is furious when he is informed directly, when asked what the soldiers should do, he refers to the royal order in the event of an attack on July 10, 1949, in all military offices Norway hangs.
The notifying officer asked incredulously that it would mean war, which Otto Grieg Tidemand answered with a short “yes” before he slammed the phone down.
At that time, membership of NATO was viewed very critically in Norway and Otto Grieg Tidemand’s open and clearly visible type of alleged attack gave the impression that Russia wanted to influence the political debate sustainably with this mock attack. The game is very risky, a little spark can trigger an inferno.
The following afternoon, the officers come to the border guards, give them live ammunition, which is best to carry around with them, and give a brown envelope to young men with secret instructions on how to deal with the situation. Instructions include 30 years of confidentiality regarding these incidents.
After eight days, the spook, this Russian threat diplomacy, is over. Even if there are repeated border violations at sea and in the air, these days are among the most threatening since the Second World War. The experience of young Norwegian soldiers in dealing with this threat, fear and helplessness receives special attention.
Afterwards you are smarter, even with the Norwegian military
Following these events, combat readiness and surveillance at the Norwegian border with Russia will be increased. The equipment for a mission has since been located directly in Finnmark in order to better counter the impressive rate of mobilization on the Russian side. Because one thing has made Russia visible with this demonstration of power – its strategy.
This incident still plays a significant role in strategic considerations.
Surprisingly, the Russian neighbors knew as little as the Norwegian border guards. They and the population were told that US soldiers were deployed on the Norwegian side. In addition, the Germans so hated by World War II also took part in the NATO maneuvers in Norway as medics. The Russians no longer wanted to see German soldiers at their direct border.
Ultimately, the Russian deployment was probably a personal game against the Norwegian Defense Minister in response to the icy talks in October. Apparently, a cryptic message was sent to him when he left Moscow, the content of which announced a surprise.
Today we sit here in the parlor of the former watchtower Høyde 96, order a waffle and a coffee and look over to the Russian border.