09 September 2015

Fall from Triumph: The Sad Story of Tryggve Gran of Norway

1944 Norwegian stamp commemorating Gran's flight
(from Wikipedia)

Aviation history is filled with individuals whose achievements have been eclipsed by history or by their choices later in life. Norwegian aviator Tryggve Gran falls into both categories, having been the first man to fly across the North Sea in 1914 in a fragile Bleriot monoplane only to have the achievement fade into the cataclysm that was the First World War and then to have later in life collaborated with the Nazi occupation government of Norway in the Second World War.

Born in Bergen, Norway in 1889, Jens Tryggve Herman Gran from an early age seemed to have always had a hunger for adventure. By the time he attended the Norwegian Naval Cadet College, he was already an accomplished skier and soccer player who had traveled throughout Europe and South America. He then left college to accompany the explorer Robert F. Scott who had already led one expedition to Antarctica and was racing Roald Amundsen to be the first reach the South Pole. Scott was leading the 1910 Terra Nova expedition to reach the South Pole via the Ross Ice Shelf. Scott and four other men died on their return to their base camp after finding Amundsen had already reached the South Pole. Tryggve Gran was one of the members of the search party sent from the base camp to look for Scott's party.

On his return to Europe in 1913, Gran had a chance meeting with British aviator Robert Loraine who was the first to fly the Irish Channel and the first to fly to the Isle of Wight. Loraine convinced him to take up flying and he enrolled at Louis Bleriot's flying school. Eager for adventure and acclaim, he planned to be the first to fly the North Sea to Norway from the UK. He bought an upgraded Bleriot monoplane from his flight instructor- this aircraft had an 85-horsepower engine compared to the 25- or 50-horsepower engines most Bleriot monoplanes had. He took the plane to Scotland to two different locations that were approximately 300 miles from Norway, eventually settling on Cruden Bay which was the less fog-bound locations of the two.

Gran's flight had to leave by 6pm on 30 July 1914 because on that date because of the looming First World War the British government was imposing a ban on civilian air traffic. He tried to leave the day before the deadline, but had to turn back due to the heavy fog. On the day of the deadline, Gran took off just five hours before the appointed hour of the ban on civil flights. His only navigational instrument was a compass and he used the size and direction of the waves of the North Sea below him as a guide as well. After flying for 289 miles for over four hours, Gran landed in Norway having set world records in time and distance, having made the longest overwater flight until Alcock and Brown crossed the Atlantic five years later. It was also the first air mail flight between Britain and Norway, Gran had with him on the flight a letter from the British publisher Lord Northcliff to Queen Maud of Norway.

The acclaim he sought, though, was dampened by the onset of the war and he did serve in the RAF- having flown a Sopwith Camel, he ended the First World War commanding an RAF squadron at the Russian port of Archangel. In 1919 he left the RAF and tried a trans-Atlantic crossing only to crash right after takeoff. He then toured Scandanavia in a Handley Page O/400 bomber, becoming the first person to fly nonstop between London and Oslo. He crashed that plane too, in Oslo.

Tryggve Gran in 1923
("Tryggve Gran 1923" by Anders Beer Wilse)
During the interwar years Trggyve Gran was restless and disgruntled that his achievements were little noticed by anyone outside of Norway. Though the historical records have thus far failed to show whether he joined the Nazi Party before or after the April 1940 German occupation of Norway, Gran was an easy target by the puppet government of Vidking Quisling who promised him fame and fortune by lending legitimacy to the Quisling government. There is no doubt that the Nazis wanted to use Gran to improve the image of the occupation government in Norway, even issuing a stamp in 1944 on the 30th anniversary of his North Sea crossing. Quisling made Gran the head of flight wing of his government, the Hirdens Flykorps, but with the defeat of Germany in 1945, Gran found himself under trial as a collaborator and sentence to serve 18 months in prison.

For thirty years after his release from prison until his death in 1980, Tryggve Gran lectured about the Antarctic expeditions of Robert F. Scott with little ever said by him of his aviation achievements, his reputation tarnished in his homeland by his association with the Nazis.

Source: Aviation History, March 2010. "Forgotten Pioneer Pilot: The Norwegians never forgave their most famous aviator for collaborating with the Nazis" by Bethany Robinson, p20-21.

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