Reindeer moss kept the men alive

Even though the name suggests it’s a moss, reindeer moss is actually a lichen. It grows in well-drained open environments and is highly resistant to the cold. It grows in both hot and cold climates but it is mainly found growing in areas of alpine tundra, although we see quite a lot here in North Wales. Reindeer moss is an important food for reindeer and is therefore important to the economy in some regions. It is important that these areas are not over grazed as it only grows at roughly 3-5mm per year.

In 1934 Norsk Hydro built the first commercial plant capable of producing heavy water, as a by-product of fertiliser production. During World War II the allies were worried that the Germans would gain access to this heavy water and use it to produce nuclear weapons. It was therefore decided that a raid would be mounted to remove the heavy water supply and destroy the heavy water plant at Rjukan waterfall in Telemark, Norway. There was a series of sabotage actions by the Norwegian resistance movement as well as Allied bombing. Eventually the plant was destroyed.

During these missions men were out in the Norwegian wilderness for large periods of time. The food situation was desperate. Everything was covered in snow and they found it difficult to catch birds and reindeer. Sometimes they would dig up reindeer moss and boil it up mixed with ash from the fire. This would reduce the acidity of the reindeer moss after repeated cooking, turning it into a rather disgusting gloopy mixture. The best meal for the men was second hand reindeer moss. After a reindeer had been killed all of the meat would be eaten but the stomach contents began to be seen as a delicacy! The partially digested reindeer moss was much more easily digested and was cooked up mixed with blood. It contained a good amount of vitamin C which was seriously lacking from their diet and it was this that helped to keep them alive.