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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler

Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club

Phillip Hoose

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)



April 9, 1940. It was a breakfast like any other until the dishes started to rattle. Then an all-alert siren pierced the morning calm and the sky above Odense, Denmark, thundered with sound. The Pedersen family pushed back their chairs, raced outside, and looked up. Suspended above them in close formation was a squadron of dark airplanes. They were flying ominously low, no more than three hundred meters above the ground. The black marks on each wing tagged them as German warplanes. Scraps of green paper fluttered down.

Knud Pedersen, fourteen, stepped over and plucked one from the lawn. "OPROP!" it began. Slightly misspelled, that meant something like "Attention!" in Danish. Though the leaflet, addressed to "Danish Soldiers and the Danish People," was written in an error-filled garble of German, Danish, and Norwegian, the point was unmistakable. German military forces had invaded Denmark and were now occupying the country. The leaflet explained that they had arrived to "protect" the Danes from the sinister English and French, that Denmark had become a "protectorate" of Germany. So there was no need to worry: everyone was protected now. Danes should go on with their lives as usual.

Knud looked around at his neighbors. Some, still in their pajamas, appeared dazed. Others were furious. Across the street a father and his two sons stood at rigid attention on their apartment balcony, right arms thrust reverently upward toward the German planes. Mr. Anderson, the merchant who sold Tarzan comics from his kiosk on the corner, was shaking his fist at the sky. All four neighbors would be dead within three years.

The following day Denmark's prime minister, Thorvald Stauning, and the Danish king, Christian X, put their signatures to an agreement allowing Germany to occupy Denmark and take control of the government. A terse proclamation explained Denmark's official position:

The government has acted in the honest conviction that in so doing we have saved the country from an even worse fate. It will be our continued endeavor to protect our country and its people from the disasters of war, and we shall rely on the people's cooperation.

All day long German soldiers poured into Odense and other cities by boat, plane, tank, and transport wagon. Ordinary German foot soldiers of the German defense force-the Wehrmacht-wore brownish-green uniforms with black hobnail boots and rounded green helmets. Well prepared, they quickly took over the town, setting up barracks and command centers in hotels, factories, and schools. They pounded German-language directional signs into public squares and strung miles of telephone lines between headquarters, operations centers, and barracks. By the end of the day, there were sixteen thousand Germans on Danish soil and Germany was in total control.

A tall, slender teen, Knud Pedersen had known and cared little about war or politics until that Friday morning in April. He was a reasonably good student and handy with his fists, as you had to be at his all-boys school. But Knud's real loves were drawing and painting. Each Saturday morning he met his favorite cousin, Hans Jøergen Andersen, at the Odense library. They went straight for the big volumes of art history, flipped to the breathtaking nudes of Rubens or to Greek sculptures of the female figure, and started drawing. To Knud and Hans Jøergen, the half-draped Venus de Milo was a hundred times more interesting than the fully clothed Mona Lisa.

On Sundays, after Knud's father, the Reverend Edvard Pedersen, completed his Protestant church service, the Pedersen family would convene in the church residency with aunts, uncles, and cousins from other branches, forming a great tribe. In the office, uncles drank and swore their way through a fast-moving, table-slamming card game called l'hombre. Knud's mother, Margrethe, and his many aunts occupied the sitting room, knitting, sipping tea, and talking nonstop, getting up now and then to tend the slow-cooking chickens whose aroma grew stronger from the kitchen by the minute. Children, including Knud, his brother Jens (a year older), his sister, Gertrud (two years younger), and his much younger brothers, Jørgen and Holger, played on the second floor, creating and painting scenery for the evening performance of Robin Hood or Snow White or Robinson Crusoe. Each child got to invite a friend. By evening there were dozens of laughing, drinking, applauding friends and family, full and satisfied. It was like growing up in a cocoon.

Knud had been only dimly aware that Germany had invaded Poland the year before, and he was oblivious to the special peril that Jews faced with Hitler in control. Before its planes arrived on April 9, Germany had seemed no more than the neighborhood bully, a bordering country with twenty times Denmark's population and an undue influence on Danish history and culture. Even before the war, Danish students had to study German in school, learn German literature, and play German music.

Adolf Hitler had not seemed a particular menace either. In 1937, the fourth year of Hitler's Nazi regime, the Pedersen family had gone on a motor tour of Germany in the family's big green Nash Rambler. As they rolled through neatly cropped pastures and well-managed towns, Knud's parents expressed admiration for what Hitler had accomplished. There was a sense of order and industry in the small towns and cities. Germans were at work while many other nations were still mired in a worldwide economic depression. At the end of the trip their father had pinned a small flag with a swastika to the windshield of the car. When they reentered Denmark, Danes in the border villages, neighbors who knew the Nazis well, suggested they remove it at once.

But now all this innocence was gone, a bubble popped. German forces had also stormed into Norway on April 9, but Norway had fought back, standing up to the mighty German war machine and paying with a heavy loss of life. In those early days after the German invasion, there were sickening news accounts of Norwegian soldiers slaughtered in defense of their nation. Many were boys in their late teens.


The German attack on Norway on April, 9, 1940, brought war to Norway for the first time in 126 years. Nearly fifty thousand Norwegian troops were mobilized, but they were overmatched by German forces. Germans quickly seized control of coastal cities and then, deploying troops especially trained for mountain warfare, went after Norwegian soldiers in the country's rugged interior. Norway held out for two months, hoping for support from Great Britain that turned out to be too little and too late.

Norway surrendered after two months of fighting, which had left 1,335 Norwegians killed or wounded. Norwegians kept fighting at sea, employing their large fleet of merchant ships to transport goods to nations at war with Germany. Germany wiped out 106 of 121 Norwegian vessels, killing thousands. Only one of Norway's nine submarines survived the war.

Meanwhile, Danish schoolchildren were being peppered with Nazi propaganda describing the glorious future awaiting them.

KNUD PEDERSEN: I was in eighth grade when the Germans came. We had about two months of school remaining until summer recess. The occupation was on everyone's mind, but during those weeks our teachers kept telling us not to talk about it. Don't object. Don't mouth off. We mustn't arouse the giant. There were many German sympathizers on our school faculty. In Denmark our second language was German, and our books suddenly sprouted all these articles about the happy Hitler Youth who went out in the sunshine and camped and hiked through the forests and played in the mountains and got to visit old castles and all that bloody garbage. It was easy to see that it was all crap.

Text copyright © 2015 by Phillip Hoose