Projects and priorities

Project Nordland Railway

From April 1943 to May 1945, more than 2000 prisoners of war died from forced labour building the Nordland- and Polar railways – the Nazis’ big projects in Norway. The story of these prisoners, most of them Soviet, and their fate has for decades been glossed over and nearly forgotten, but it will now be told in both Norway and Russia through Project Nordland Railway: the internment and forced labour of Soviet POWs during World War II.

Bjørnelva memorial The exploded memorial at Bjørnelva prisoner-of war-camp on Saltfjellet. The site has been left untouched since 1950. Photo: The Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage

Project background

Russia and Norway can look back on more than 25 years of cultural heritage cooperation. As early as 1988, the then Soviet Union and Norway entered into formalised cooperation on environmental protection in the High North, and the protection of cultural monuments was incorporated into their efforts in 1995. Over the years, the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage has taken part in several projects with Russian partners, particularly the Likhachev Russian Research Institute for Cultural and National Heritage.

The purpose of the project is to chart, document, preserve and tell the story of German POW camps during World War II and the forced labour done by Soviet POWs along the Nordland Railway.

Russian prisoner of war Norwegian doctor Leiv Kreyberg visited Bjørnelva shortly after it was liberated. His original image caption states: “The sick stumble from the barracks to the outhouse through ankle-deep mud”. Photo: Leiv Kreyberg

The project in a historical context

From April 1943 to May 1945, Germany’s Organisation Todt (OT) led the construction of the Nordland Railway (the stretch from Mo i Rana to Fauske) in cooperation with Norwegian Rail (NSB). This is also when construction of the Polar Line (Fauske–Drag) was begun.

The Nazis’ goal was to prevent an allied invasion from the UK by reinforcing German mobility and supply lines in Northern Norway by improving roads and railways. In addition, the Germans wanted to link the Norwegian/Nordic railway network to the Soviet railway network to improve Third Reich logistics after it had won the war against the Soviet Union. This explains why it was initially important to build the railway from Mo i Rana to Fauske with the end station in Bodø.

The other goal was to extend the railway from Fauske northeastwards to gain access to the Soviet Union. Although a lack of human, technical and material resources prevented the latter goal from being achieved, a total of 55 POW camps were nevertheless established between Mo i Rana and Drag in Tysfjord from 1943 to 1945.

A total of 26,000 prisoners of war were interned in the camps, which were dispersed over six municipalities: Rana (14), Saltdal (17), Fauske (2), Sørfold (16), Hamarøy (5) and Tysfjord (1). 1,800 of these POWs were Poles and Yugoslavs, while the rest were from the Soviet Union. More than 2,000 POWs, mostly Soviet prisoners, died from overwork.

The themes and time frames of the project focus on Soviet prisoners who worked to build the railway between 1943 and 1945, the camps they were interned in and the infrastructure they built. The project will emphasise the fates of the fallen soldiers, where they were buried and how they have been remembered from after the war up to the present.

An important factor in this context is the Norwegian state’s implementation of ‘Operation Asphalt’ in 1951 during the Cold War, with the associated demonisation of the new enemy. The memorials erected, many by liberated POWs, were subsequently both destroyed and neglected, but also looked after by locals and Norwegian institutions. The monuments survived the Cold War and Glasnost, not to mention memorials of the Nazi occupation, and they are still important memorial sites to this day.

Geographically, the project primarily comprises the camps along the section between Mo i Rana and Drag, emphasising camps that interned POWs who built railways.

Portrait of an unnamed prisoner of war Leiv Kreyberg’s own words about the image: “The expressions were the same from one camp to another. Fatalistic resignation. They were not used to visitors bringing good news.” Photo: Leiv Kreyberg

Project Nordland Railway: the internment and forced labour of Soviet POWs during World War II

The project has four goals:

Goal 1: To strengthen and continue Russia and Norway’s professional cooperation regarding Soviet POWs who helped build the Nordland Railway and the Polar Line during World War II.

Goal 2: To secure traces, documentation and knowledge of prison camps, burial sites, memorials and built-up infrastructure associated with Soviet prisoners of war.

Goal 3: To highlight and tell the story of the internment and forced labour of Soviet prisoners of war based on knowledge obtained under goal 2.

Goal 4: To honour the memory of Soviet prisoners of war.

Berrfloget memorial Installation of a plaque at the Berrfloget memorial in the place where 11 Soviet prisoners or war were shot. Photo: Kjell Fredriksen, Foto Nordfra

To achieve these goals, the project tasks are subdivided into multiple work packages.

Work package 1: Administration and coordination

Work package 2: Illuminate the lives of the prisoners of war using Russian sources and archival searches.

Archival searches in Russia have already produced interesting documentation. New knowledge remains to be found in both Norwegian and Russian archives.  It is desirable to find this information and disseminate the findings to the general public. The project seeks to collect material from relevant archives in Norway and Russia – such as the Norwegian Armed Forces Archives, the Organisation Todt and NSB archives in Norway, as well as the FSB and MVD archives in Russia – and then publish the findings in a booklet.

The 50-page booklet will be produced in cooperation with a Russian partner and target a general audience. It will be translated into Russian and English.

Work package 3: Archaeological investigations

Archaeological investigations at selected camps have been a prioritised goal of the project. This mainly involves surveys such as laser scanning and soil samples, i.e. not necessarily archaeological excavations. Sections of the Kalvika POW camp were archaeologically excavated, however. Archaeology can unearth new knowledge about camp life, contributing general information about how the camps worked.

Kalvika POW camp An archaeological excavation of Kalvika prisoner-of-war camp was conducted in 2017. New and interesting findings were uncovered that contributed to new knowledge Photo: Ruth Tove Trang Liljar, Nordland Fylkeskommune

Work package 4: Overview of infrastructure constructed along the Nordland Railway

Project Nordland Railway will create an overview of the infrastructure constructed and left behind by Soviet prisoners of war in Nordland. The prisoners worked on railways, roads, tunnels, culverts and bridges. Some of this infrastructure is used quite extensively today. Up to now, little has been known about what they actually helped build and what still remains to this day.

Work package 5: Honour the memory of the prisoners by means of a memorial monument and/or site.

Upon being liberated, many of the surviving prisoners wanted to erect memorials to their dead comrades. Many of these memorials were later demolished, relocated or neglected. At Dunderland prison camp, the project has rebuilt the original monument that was erected at the camp. Information signs will also be set up.

The monument at Bjørnelva POW camp was blown up, and it has been decided to leave it as it is today. The project wants to establish a memorial site at this camp instead.

Work package 6: Various information initiatives/dissemination

The visualisation and telling of the story about the trials and tribulations of Soviet prisoners, including physical remnants of prison camps, burial sites and memorials, is a prioritised project activity. This communication effort is based on knowledge procured during the work packages.

Information will be communicated through publications, exhibitions, sign-posting, seminars, commemorations at the sites, the production of monuments, etc.


The project is part of the Environmental cooperation between Norway and Russia, a cooperation between the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment (KLD) and the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment. It is financed by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and KLD.

Project manager: The Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage (Riksantikvaren)

Russian partner: Likhatsjev National research-institute for environment and cultural heritage

Other partnere: The University of Arkhangelsk, Arkhangelsk Museum, State Institute for Art Studies in Moscow, the Narvik War and Peace Centre, Nordland county council, Nordland Museum, Helgeland Museum.

Duration: 2016 – 2021

Contact person:

Noelle Dahl-Poppe

Published: 9. December 2020 | Updated: 16. February 2021