Almost 50 years ago a New York publisher and his wife were having lunch in an Oslo restaurant with Finn Jerstad, a senior figure in Norway's publishing world. I quote the publisher: 'In the middle of our conversation, I suddenly felt a wave sweeping through the restaurant of what I can only describe as human electricity. It was obvious that something was happening in the restaurant.
"What's going on?", I asked our host.
Finn replied, "There's Sonsteby and two of his men".
At that point I saw three men walking through the restaurant across from where we were sitting.
"Who's Sonsteby?" I asked.
"He's the author of Norway's best-selling book," Finn Jerstad replied. "He's legendary."'
Gunnar Sonsteby was indeed legendary, but not because he wrote a best-selling book. Last month he died, aged 94, one of the last of the famous resistance fighters against the five-year Nazi occupation of Norway during the second world war.
He died just days before the prime minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg, was in Shetland to open a museum in Scalloway, home of the clandestine Shetland Bus during the war. Stoltenberg's presence – on Norway's national day – was surely proof of his country's undying gratitude; something that some in our midst seem unable to grasp, possibly because they've never had to live under streets of fluttering swastikas.
Gunnar Sonsteby was an ace saboteur, who learned a lot about his craft in Scotland. He trained at Arisaig and at Drumintoul, near Aviemore, and ended up as Norway's most decorated citizen, with the War Cross and three swords. Yet his military career ended when the war ended and he was only 27. 'I didn't want any more war. I had had enough,' he said.
Perhaps one of Sonsteby's greatest legacies was his lecturing, later on in life, about the war to young Norwegians. Maybe he was conscious of a tendency to regard the second world war and its resistance fighters as an irrelevance from another era; as if freedom from despotism is something that falls out of the sky whenever it's needed. If only.
They were described as 'mild, pacific men' yet they had the moral courage to confront an ideology, backed up by an almighty military machine, that was alien to the civilised world.
Sonsteby of course was only one of many. There was Knut Haugland, Max Manus, Joachim Ronneberg and his brother Erling (later to become a Labour politician in Norway), to name but a very few. Joachim Ronneberg, now almost 93, led the small commando unit that sabotaged the heavy-water plant at Rjukan in 1943, hindering production of the dreaded Nazi atomic bomb.
As with other spectacular war-time raids, the Rjukan attack was turned into a Hollywood blockbuster, 'The Heroes of Telemark'. Ronneberg dismissed it as a work of fiction that should never have seen the light of day. Once again Hollywood distorts reality.
Then there was Jan Baalsrud, whose escape from the Gestapo was scarcely credible after crossing to Norway on the Shetland Bus. Baalsrud was compromised and had to fight his way, alone, into the mountains, where he somehow survived a harsh winter for two months, having self-amputated most of his frostbitten toes before he reached Sweden, emaciated. The route he took is still marched by local people every summer by way of commemoration. Gratitude indeed.
These resistance fighters were all ordinary guys in their early 20s who had no vested interests whatsoever to defend. They were described as 'mild, pacific men' yet they had the moral courage to confront an ideology, backed up by an almighty military machine, that was alien to the civilised world. They knew full well the consequences of being caught: they would be liquidated immediately under Hitler's Commando Order of 1942.
Of course they would not have succeeded without help from civilians who loathed the Nazis and those who collaborated with them. As Sonsteby acknowledged: 'Homes were put at our disposal without question, even though the owners ran risks that became exceedingly grave as the German reprisals became harsher'.
There are still some in Scotland who fought in Norway during the war, some of them barely out of school at the time but keen to do what they could to preserve humanity. They are old men now, in some cases hardly able to walk, let alone fight, but secure in the knowledge that they fought the good fight.
To fight or not to fight? There are those for whom obedience to the governing authorities is paramount, even divine. St Paul certainly thought so. But a clergyman from my young days, who had served with distinction in the second world war, took a different view. 'If you are a pacifist to that extent, then so be it,' he said. 'I am not.'
Peter MacAulay is a journalist based in the Highlands