- This story was originally published in Norwegian. The original version is available here.
On 27 April 1997, the British Royal family made an announcement: The Duke of Edinburgh and The Prince of Wales had both sent a representative to a memorial service in St. Christopher’s Chapel near Elgin, Scotland to commemorate a Norwegian woman two years after her death.
She had gained a place in Norwegian military and feminist history, but like so many other women in her generation, she chose to keep quiet about what she’d been through.
There was something that kept her from telling her story. Some unsettling questions that always returned:
Was it her fault that her friend and fellow resistance woman Lisa Nilssen had been exposed? Had she said too much? And who was really the person who questioned her after her desperate escape in late autumn 1942?
The doorbell rang at three in the morning
The sound of the doorbell pulled her brutally out of sleep. Insistent, repetitive ringing. It was during this time at night the Gestapo usually came. At the darkest hour. It was three in the morning. The war had been going on for two years. Eva Mohr put on her clothes, then dressed her two-year-old son, convinced that the Nazis had come to the apartment in Frogner to fetch them.
FROM EVA’S OWN NOTES
We looked at each other, without a word, quickly put warm clothing on and good walking shoes, and walked down the flight of stairs to the door in fear and trembling.
Eva Mohr had prepared herself for this to happen ever since her husband, Conrad, had fled the country to join the war as a pilot. She’d never reported his departure as required. Instead, she’d tried to hide the clues: She continued to pick up the food rations that were meant for him.
She walked down the stairs holding her little boy’s hand. Opened the door. Prepared for the worst. Imagined the uniformed men waiting outside.
FROM EVA’S OWN NOTES
Much to our relief, it was only a very drunk Norwegian outside.
Fear and uncertainty
Always on edge. Always fearful that she might have to explain what had become of Conrad or other acquaintances who had left the country. This was Eva Mohr’s life in the occupied Norwegian capital.
FROM EVA’S OWN NOTES
Life in Oslo was full of worries, fear, exitement, threats, shooting of innocent Norwegians. Food was scarce, the best meal we could have at Grand Hotel was fried pieces of Turnip in brown "Gravy".
Eva Gundersen was born in 1917. She was only eight years old when she met the man she would share her life with in dancing school. Both were children of highly respected business people in Bergen. Both were unusually privileged, and had been abroad to learn both English and German.
The year before the war broke out, Eva Gundersen became Eva Mohr. They moved to Oslo and were expecting a child. Four months after the German occupation, her son Bill was born.
When Conrad fled to Sweden in 1941, Eva reluctantly had to stay behind in Norway.
Friends in the Resistance
Several times Eva contacted a woman who went under the name of Lisa Nilssen. Her real name was Elisabeth. She was a friend of the family, and a key figure in a top-secret network that transported people out of the country. But there was always someone who was in greater danger than Eva. Someone who needed to get across the border more urgently.
Eva and her son had to keep waiting.
Even though several of her acquaintances were involved in the Resistance, there was little Eva was able to do. For one thing, she was alone with her child, Bill. And she became increasingly afraid she would expose others. There had been close calls.
One day she visited a house where she knew there were resistance activists. She knocked on the door. A man in German uniform emerged. Asked what on earth she was doing there. Eva immediately realised that she’d arrived too late, and quickly replied that someone had advertised a bicycle for sale at this address. The SS officer bought her story. Slammed the door shut. Later, Eva explained how she managed to react that quickly:
EVA ON HOW SHE CAME UP WITH AN EXCUSE
Your brain works quickly when your head is about to be chopped off.
In early summer 1942, Eva learned that Conrad, after a gruelling journey through the Soviet Union, Iran, India and South America, had managed to make his way to the Norwegian air base in Little Norway in Canada. She feared she would be arrested if the Germans found out – to keep Conrad from taking part in combat missions.
She got in touch with Lisa Nilssen once more and asked for help to flee to Sweden with her child. Fearing reprisals against Eva and Bill, the resistance finally gave her a green light to leave the country.
Someone kept tabs
Before departure, Eva got a clear sign that the time had come to leave. She’d gone to Bergen to say goodbye to her family. The Germans had shadowed her. Eva got her info from a source in the police: The Germans believed that the aim of her trip to Bergen was to flee across the North Sea to England.
On 19 November 1942, the time had come. Eva handed her ration cards to Lisa Nilssen, hoping that people taking part in the covert operations might have use for them. She and Bill boarded the train to Halden in Østfold. She had a Nazi newspaper under her arm in case the Germans inspected the carriage.
After waiting for several hours in a hotel in Halden, four men from the resistance led them out of town in the darkness. They ended up by a rowboat at the water’s edge.
Rowing from the unrest
They rowed across the Idde Fjord that November night, as quietly as they could. The moonlight made them vulnerable, even as they could glimpse Sweden on the other side. They looked out for the spotlight from the German patrol boat. Voiced yet another silent prayer that the border guards made their rounds with the same regularity as usual. Being exposed could mean death.
There were six others in the boat. Five of them were women. Eva’s luggage consisted of a handbag and a tiny backpack. She carried Bill on her arm. Lisa Nilssen had supplied sleeping pills for the boy, but the medication had the opposite effect: He was awake and restless. Now she gave her son a piece of chocolate so he wouldn’t start crying and expose them in open water.
They had almost reached the other side. Just as they were about to disembark, they discovered they were not alone. A voice shouted in the darkness: “Halt!”
FROM EVA’S OWN NOTES
We were quite sure this was a German guard catching us out, and I must say may heart stopped several beats.
The Germans had recently increased the punishment for those who tried to flee from the country. One month earlier, they had decided that attempts to escape would be punishable by death.
Luckily, the border guard hiding in the bushes wasn’t German.
FROM EVA’S OWN NOTES
The guard spoke swedish, and we had forgotten that "Halt" in German and Swedish is the same word.
Delousing and debriefing
In Sweden, the refugees were questioned and had to go through a mandatory and degrading delousing. Then they continued to Stockholm.
More questioning. Many questions. Eva was interrogated about what she had done in Norway during the occupation. She had an unpleasant feeling. Had she said too much during questioning? Were they acting in her interests? Could the information be used against the ones who had helped her out of the country? The unsettling feeling refused to fade with time. She would soon have devastating news.
It was difficult to know who you could trust in Sweden.
FROM EVA’S OWN NOTES
It was a very strange feeling to be a refugee, and though some of the Swedes were Norwegian orientated, and very kind, other were not so.
In the Swedish capital there were Germans everywhere.
FROM EVA’S OWN NOTES
It was extremely difficult to get used to seeing the Germans, many officers amongst them, walking round the streets or sitting in restaurants next to us at the tables.
The worst possible news
Eva’s goal was to get to London to join Conrad and the resistance. She took various courses during the five months she spent in Sweden. Her son had to live in a nursery.
One Monday in February, Bill fell ill. He had bad pneumonia, and Eva was at home with him. That evening Benedicte von Tangen, a friend and her connection to London and Norway, knocked on Eva’s door. She had been asked to deliver a terrible message: Conrad Mohr had died in a plane crash in Toronto, Canada, on his final flight before heading for London.
Eva was devastated.
But in her sorrow, she took comfort in her son Bill.
FROM EVA’S OWN NOTES
Benedicte von Tangen had the difficult task to tell me. She was sweet. It was a good thing that I had him (Bill) to look after.
Despite the tragic news, Eva was determined to continue to London. Take part in the battle that Conrad no longer could fight. She got a seat on the risky and exclusive flight from Sweden to Scotland. They flew over occupied Denmark and Norway at night to limit the danger of being discovered by the Germans. They flew at a great altitude, and had to use oxygen masks during the flight.
It was a frightening journey for mother and child. The plane was spotted above Copenhagen, and the Germans tried to shoot it down. But they still managed to make it to Aberdeen. Then they continued by rail to London.
Norwegians in Great Britain had to take part in the struggle against the Germans. General conscription applied to women as well. As a single mother, Eva could have filed for exemption. But she was never in any doubt: She would take part in the fight. But it was still a heart-wrenching decision. Bill, who now was almost three years old, once again had to move to a nursey in the outskirts of the city.
“We crawled on our bellies through the rhododendron bushes”
As soon as Eva arrived in London, she reported to the Norwegian Joint Command in Kingston House in the city’s West End, where she and two others became the first women to put on the blue uniform of the Norwegian Air Force.
After a while, the women were sent to a training camp in Scotland. Marching, shooting and drills were on the itinerary.
EVA MOHR IN LETTER TO THE NORWEGIAN HIGH COMMAND
We crawled on our bellies through the rhododendron bushes and shot at targets [...] We went on pack marches, slept in tents, and finally managed to keep step fairly well.
Eva was given more and more responsibilities. She was energetic and industrious. Thanks to the language learning holidays in her youth, she spoke fluent English. One day she was summoned to the office of Colonel Birger Motzfeldt. He wanted to set up a Norwegian women’s flying corps, like the one the British already had. He had decided to put Eva in charge, and sent her as the only Norwegian woman to a military academy with British servicewomen.
The regime was gruelling, based on officer training for men. But despite the hardship: Eva made it through in one piece and got her stripes. From now on she was Second Lieutenant Eva Mohr.
She was then appointed head of the women’s branch of the Norwegian Air Force. That a 25-year-old woman would be given this much responsibility was something new. Almost unheard of. In 1977, 34 years later, the Norwegian Air Force still didn’t have a single female officer, not to mention commander.
In the midst of this she received shocking news from home. Lisa Nilssen’s network had been compromised. The woman who had helped Eva and so many others out of the country had been captured by the Germans. She was caught red-handed encrypting messages to the refugee border guides. They found a number of rationing cards in her home.
Maybe they included the ones Eva had handed to her before she left? Several people had been tortured in the crackdown on the network. The painful memories from Stockholm returned. Had she said too much during questioning? Could it be her fault?
It would take many, many years before Eva knew the answer.
Always at work
The women at Kingston House worked day and night, six days a week. Did the invisible work vital to enabling the pilots to fight with the Allies. Ordered necessary equipment. Kept everything under control. Did the paperwork. They were also an important support for pilots who returned from traumatic missions, and were responsible for debriefing.
In addition to her daily duties, Eva worked to assemble the women’s branch. She gave new servicewomen their military instructions, and made sure that the women would work under the same conditions as the men. By the end of the war, at least 153 women were involved in the Norwegian Air Force, 105 of them in military positions like Eva.
She was there when antiaircraft batteries fired at German planes, learned encoding, and often visited hospitals to call on pilots who were ill or wounded.
The women in London often had to attend funeral services in the Norwegian church. More than eight out of ten Norwegian pilots who took saw combat lost their lives. Either in battle or from diseases.
EVA IN LETTER TO THE NORWEGIAN HIGH COMMAND
We lost so many of our men, friends from youth, fiancés. But I never heard the servicewomen complain. They all carried on – no matter what.
“The small planes are very, very naughty”
Frequent bombings and German drone strikes shook the British capital on a daily basis. The young Bill couldn’t help but notice the explosions and frequent air raid sirens. Once, visiting friends for dinner, it was a close call. The neighbouring house was flattened by a German drone.
According to his mother, he used to say, “The big planes are nice planes, and the small ones are very, very naughty.”
Eva was at the office one day when she received another piece of terrifying news: The nursery where Bill lived had been bombed. The situation was chaotic. Eva ran through the busy streets in her blue air force uniform. “Our hearts went out to her as she rushed off,” wrote Gerd Hurum, one of the other Norwegian women working at Kingston House.
When Eva arrived, after a nervous journey, she found her boy unharmed. By coincidence, the children had been in another wing when the bomb hit the building.
Bill was sent to stay with a family that lived even further from the city.
When peace arrived in London, Eva joined the celebrations. She was in the square in front of Buckingham Palace on 8 May, when the Royal Family appeared before a jubilant crowd. Many years later she would get to know the royals.
But right now, she was fed up with Brits, particularly officers. She couldn’t wait to get home.
Returning with the government
There was no shortage of famous names aboard the passenger ship MS Andes as it approached the Norwegian capital on 31 May 1945. The Norwegian government, parliamentarians and others who had pulled the strings from London during the war. Eva Mohr and her son Bill were aboard as well. Now they were heading home to a free country. They got a divine reception in Oslo. But it also highlighted the fact that the war was over, and Eva and her son had returned alone.
The day after the huge reception, Eva approached Colonel Motzfeldt, the man who initially had requested her to lead the women’s branch of the air force. She asked to be demobilised.
Then she returned to Bergen.
Visitors from Britain
It was wonderful to be back home. She could finally spend time with her friends. But one morning, on 19 June, her father-in-law, the landowner, city mayor and parliamentarian Wilhelm Mohr, came to her. He had visitors from Britain, and wanted to have his sociable and multilingual daughter-in-law present.
Eva recorded the words of the conversation:
– I’ve invited three British officers to dinner tonight. Could you please stay home and help me entertain them?
– Do I have to? Eva asked. – I’ve seen so many Britons. I’d rather spend time with my old friends.
– There’s nothing to do about it, her father-in-law replied. – I want you here.
– I’m sure they’ll bore me with endless talk about their gardens in Surrey, Eva retorted.
But she did as her father-in-law asked. Although, as expected, there was plenty of talk of English gardens, one of the Britons stood apart. He was from Scotland. His name was Robert Chew, and he lived in an area that Eva had visited. It turned out that they had mutual acquaintances. Eva had been invited home to his neighbours.
Eva Mohr and Robert Chew would see a lot of each other in the coming months. Eva probably played a bit hard to get. She couldn’t really imagine a life in Great Britain.
They still got married in Oslo in August 1947. Eva Mohr became Eva Chew. She took her son Bill with her and moved to Scotland. Not to your average British brick terrace house in a garden town, but to something else completely.
Mother of several hundred boys
Spring 2017: – My room was up there, Bill Mohr says, pointing at one of the windows in the huge, stately building surrounded by a park, a cricket field and a chapel.
It’s 75 years since Bill was drugged during their flight from Norway, then deloused so as not to infect the Swedes.
– It’s strange to think that we actually were refugees. But that’s what we were, he says.
Bill has taken us to what became the childhood home of him and his half-brother, who was born the year after the family moved to Scotland.
The building, originally a 17th century Country House, houses one of the most prestigious boarding schools in Great Britain: Gordonstoun School.
The school has something in common with Eva and Bill: In 1934, the German reformist educator Kurt Hahn fled from Nazi Germany. Many of his teachers were German Jews who couldn’t remain in Germany in the 1930s. At Gordonstoun, they established a new school.
Robert Chew had joined the exodus from Germany in the 1930s. Among the other notable students who came along was Philip Mountbatten, Prince of Denmark and Greece and member of a German royal house. He would later become Duke of Edinburgh and the husband and consort of Queen Elizabeth II. Eva’s new husband had a particular responsibility for him. He was Mountbattens's mentor and also the master of the house where the prince lived.
Eva had promised herself that she would now spend her time taking care of Bill, but she had to change her plans. Now Bill was forced to share his mother with several hundred other boys at the boarding school.
– I was treated just the same as all the other boys. It sounds strange, but in many ways, I had a distanced relationship to my mother. I lived apart from her in both Sweden and London. Now I had to share her with a whole school, Bill Mohr remembers.
– Still, I feel that I had a good and secure upbringing, says Bill, who became a student at his parent’s school.
And Eva truly became a mother for the entire male-dominated boarding school. A breath of maternal affection in an overwhelmingly masculine environment. In time, Robert Chew was promoted to headmaster. But Eva was not satisfied with simply being a headmaster’s wife. She played a key role in running the school.
Eva earned the love and respect of the students at the boarding school. One of them said, “She showed true commitment, even to our smallest problems and mistakes. Nobody had a greater influence on the development of all the boys at the school.”
During the course of the year she invited the students, one by one, to a motherly chat with her alone, accompanied by tea and pastries.
In January 1962, all eyes in Britain were towards Gordonstoun. Prince Philip had decided that his son, Prince Charles, should attend the school he had gone to. When the plane with the 13-year-old prince took off from London later that year, the entire British press corps was at the airport. He arrived at Gordonstoun with Prince Philip, and was received by Robert Chew.
But the prince’s encounter with the school was difficult and brutal, especially at first. Some of the students probably cut the Prince down to size. This kind of bullying would be unheard of today. In letters to his grandmother, the Queen Mother, he wrote that he didn’t like it at all in rugged Scotland.
Eva Chew realised that she had to pay extra attention to the royal heir. She asked him to come by, and gave him tea and sympathy.
– This was something she occasionally did for many of the students, but she showed extra concern for the prince, says Bill.
Plenty of ink has been spent on articles about how much Charles disliked being at the school, but the prince has also emphasised how important his time there was for him. In a speech to the British House of Lords in 1975, the Prince of Wales said: “I am lucky in that I believe it taught me a great deal about myself and my own abilities and disabilities. It taught me to accept challenges and take the initiative – why else do you think I am brave enough to stand before your Lordships now?” the then 27-year-old Prince said.
The British Royal Family continued to send their children to the school where the Norwegian woman was a key figure. Queen Elizabeth herself came by several times. Many pointed out that she resembled the queen of Gordonstoun.
Eva’s commitment never wavered, not even after she and Robert Chew relinquished the responsibility for the boarding school. She took on many other offices within education, voluntary work and the arts, and continued to do so after her husband died in September 1970.
But one of her most important achievements was something she began working on after she had turned seventy. A meeting with another female military pioneer helped Eva to begin to reflect on what she’d been part of.
The difficult questions
Eva had always been extremely reluctant to talk about or investigate what had really happened during the war. For most of her life, she had grappled with questions she’d never dared try to find the answers to.
Who had she really spoken to in Sweden? Had she said too much? Was it her fault that Lisa Nilssen’s network had been compromised? That others were arrested and tortured? The questions had been there since those first, uncertain days on Swedish soil in 1942. The days when she didn’t know who to trust. When she didn’t know what the words she said would be used for.
In the summer of 1988, two women met over lunch in Oslo. Two women, it really shouldn’t be possible not to mention, when writing Norwegian military and feminist history. Two women who achieved positions where men had reigned supreme before them.
One of them, Berit Ovesen, had been among the first women to attend the Norwegian Air Force Academy, and would later become the first woman to be promoted to colonel. The other one was a woman who had started out as a refugee, but ended up as commander of the brave women in London.
The Norwegian Air Force was set to mark its 45th anniversary the next year. No women had been invited to its previous anniversaries. There was no mention of any women in the history books.
– It would have been impossible to organise the war effort without the work these women did, but their story was still forgotten, Ovesen says.
The up-and-coming female officer got in touch with people who might know something. Fortunately, Eva Chew agreed to tell her story.
– Eva was a wonderful woman. She was extremely elegant. She was mild, but incredibly strong. As she told her story, I realised she’d made a huge difference wherever she’d been.
Comparing themselves to pilots
Most of the women working in London during the war were girlfriends, wives or widows of combat pilots. They likened what they were doing to what their men did. Were their efforts comparable with the fate of the airmen who sacrificed their lives in the skies?
– Eva and the other women tried to downplay it. But I could also tell that they were proud of what they had been part of. We have to remember that these were women who had experienced huge personal loss, but still worked day and night in a city under constant bombardment, Ovesen says.
She convinced Eva Chew and the other women to write about their experiences. Made registers of all the women who had taken part. They were many more than anyone had imagined. Eva wrote a long letter to the military high command detailing her experiences. Historians discovered the material. Wrote the women into the books that until now had only been about men.
– If Eva hadn’t told her story, we wouldn’t know what we do today, says Ovesen. Today she’s retired from the air force and works as a management consultant in the private sector.
Because Eva came forward, a number of other important and brave women have become part of this story: Benedicte von Tangen, Gerd Hurum and Lisa Nilssen.
Some of the documentation Eva and the other women managed to assemble has been lost. Not everyone cared that much about preserving the story of these brave women’s effort.
Not her fault
Eva’s perception of the war changed when she told her story. The memories became easier to bear. With the help of her two sons, she discovered that it wasn’t her fault that Lisa Nilssen had been exposed and taken prisoner. Not her fault that people had been tortured.
The information that led the Germans to her came from a completely different source. Writers and historians revealed what happened with the resistance activist Lisa Nilssen in the mid-1970s. The information that exposed the network came from a man who was arrested in Oslo in 1943.
Eva could have found it out many years earlier, but she hadn’t dared face her past before.
– She was very relieved. It had been difficult for her to live with this uncertainty, says Bill Mohr, who with his brother helped their mother retrieve old memories and write down what had happened during the war.
– It also helped us develop a closer relationship to my mother, says Bill, who grew up with other caretakers most of his childhood.
Eva Chew died in the Lake District in England in 1995, 78 years old.
Two years later, a commemorative service was held in St. Christopher’s Chapel at Gordonstoun in Scotland.
Merete Malm, one of the brave women in London, remembered Eva. She wrote a touching eulogy. Described how Eva had taken care of her sister servicewomen all her life.
FROM MERETE MALM’S SPEECH AT THE COMMEMORATIVE SERVICE
We never heard her complain, on the contrary: She comforted us when things were difficult. I don’t think anyone who’s worked with her will ever forget her spirit.
Both the Duke of Edinburgh and The Prince of Wales sent representatives to the service to commemorate Eva.
Thanks to what she finally chose to reveal, we now understand why.
- Translator: Erik Grønvold