7 June 2011

75 years since the death of Queen Sonja’s brother Karl Herman

Today, 7 June 2011, it is 75 years since Queen Sonja of Norway’s brother Karl Herman Haraldsen died in a tragic sailboat explosion in the Oslofjord. The accident can be said to have had a more direct impact on the history of the Norwegian royal house than we have perhaps realized earlier.

The death announcement was published in Aftenposten’s morning edition 9 June 1936 No. 283, and repeated on the 10th and 11th. «Vår lille elskede Karl Herman omkom igår ved ulykkestilfelle, 7 år gammel. / Oslo, 7. juni 1936. / Dagny og Karl A. Haraldsen / Håkon og Gry» («Our little beloved Karl Herman died yesterday by an accident, 7 years old. / Oslo, / 7 June 1936. / Dagny and Karl A. Haraldsen / Håkon and Gry»). The text is somewhat misleading, but obviously delivered to the newspaper on 8 June, hence «yesterday», but the announcement was first published on the 9th. The name of Queen Sonja’s brother Haakon was misspelt in all the announcements.

Photo of the sailboat taken and published in Aftenposten on 8 June 1936 (evening edition). The headlines: «Eksplosjonsulykken i Seilbråten. / Sokning i hele natt uten resultat. / Hadde forgasseren hengt sig op.» («The explosion accident in Seilbråten. / Dragging [for the body] throughout the night without result. / Did the carburettor get stuck [?].»)
Photo caption: «Seilbåten fotografert i formiddag ved Akershusbryggen.» («The sailboat photographed this morning at the Akershus wharf.»)

Queen Sonja of Norway, née Haraldsen, b. Oslo 4 July 1937, was the fourth and youngest child of Karl August Haraldsen (1889–1959) and his wife Dagny, née Ulrichsen (1898–1994). Sonja's father Karl was an avid sailor and had won several cups in sailing competitions. As told by the more or less authorized biography «Sonja: Norges Kronprinsesse» by Randi Bratteli/Sissel Lange-Nielsen (Oslo: Aschehoug, 1983), many of Karl’s friends owned a sailboat, too, and on 7 June 1936 he was helping his friend to take home a boat which had been stored for the winter at Drøbak. Karl August’s youngest son, the 7 years old Karl Herman, joined him and his friends. Tragically on the trip home, just before 5 p.m., the boat exploded, due to some petrol on the deck. Little Karl Herman and his father were thrown overboard. Karl August damaged his head. They never found the boy... Dagny Haraldsen later said that she never cared for looking after graves because her son never got one. The only comfort she found then and in all the years that followed was the thought that she could have lost them both. Eventually also her husband died at an early age, but that was 23 years later.

The accident was covered by the national newspapers. Aftenposten even put the accident on the front page in the evening edition on 8 June. It had not got all the facts right. The newspaper claimed, as did Morgenbladet (which also brought the story on tis front page), that the sailboat (with an engine) was owned by Haraldsen himself, but here I have more faith in the information from the biography.

The press reports disagree about the exact place of the boat explosion. But it seems that the accident took place approximately in the middle of the fjord east of Gåsøya (spelt Gåsøen then) and somewhere between the archipelago Steilene and the rock of Ildjernsflu (see draft). The press reports also disagree about the number of passengers – 4, 5 or 6. But only 4 people were named – Karl August Haraldsen, his son Karl Herman, (company) manager Gundersen and manager Gunnar Winther. I don’t know if there was ever drawn a conclusion about the cause of the accident, but Morgenbladet’s hypothesis – which although more detailed, corresponds with Dagny Haraldsen’s version – that a leakage from one of the petrol tanks had lead to the development of gas and together with some petrol on the deck had been ignited by the flame of the primus used to make coffee. As already mentioned, the Haraldsens were thrown overboard, and little Karl Herman’s body was never found. Karl August got a minor head injury as well as a burn on his back, while Winther damaged his face. Another boat owned by retailer Matheson came to their rescue and brought them into Ingierstrand. A cargo boat named Viking took care of the burning boat. After the fire was put out, it was taken to Akershus wharf in Oslo.

Little has been published about little Karl Herman other than that he died in an accident 7 years old. It is therefore little to be said about the little boy’s short life and his personality. In Bratteli and Lange-Nielsen’s biography of the then Crown Princess Sonja, he was described as an «attpåklatt», an «afterthought», as he was born 5 years after the last of his two elder siblings. He was probably like most small boys – happy about new adventures – he was for instance described as being very thrilled about the prospect of the sailboat trip from Drøbak to Oslo. He was said to be «a dear little thing» and very attached to his mother. Maybe he was a «mummy’s boy» (in the better sense of the expression)?

A few facts can be added to the story: Both the birth register as well as the Bratteli/Lange-Nielsen biography tell that Karl Herman was born at Josefinesgate 29, third floor, on 31 March 1929 as the third child of the retailer (shopkeeper) Karl August Haraldsen and his wife Dagny, née Ulrichsen. Also his two older siblings Haakon (b. 1921) and Gry (b. 1924, d. 1970) were born in their parents’ apartment in Josefinesgate 29, situated in Homansbyen not far from the Royal Palace. The birth of Karl Herman was officially registered on 23 April 1929 following the written declaration by the child’s father. The birth was also registered by Helserådet (the Health Council). The record of his christening is not available, but it most likely took place at Uranienborg kirke (church). According to the records of the Aker skifte- og auksjonsforvalterembete (Aker Probate Court and Commissioner of public sales), «Karl Herman Haraldsen, b. 31 March 1929 in Oslo, living at Tuengen allé 1b by his parents, died in a boat accident in the fjord outside Gåsøen. Not found.» In the commentary column it is added that the deceased left behind 2 Norske Liv gift (insurance) policies worth 5000 NOK each. A death certificate was not produced. The death was reported on 12 June 1936 by Mrs. Engelstad, Bogstadveien 52. Mrs. Engelstad was Dagny Haraldsen’s sister Berna «Mimi» (1894–1993), married to agent Einar Andreas Engelstad (1888–1961).

The biography about Sonja doesn’t say anything about the Haraldsen and Ulrichsen families’ relationship with the church, but it tells that following the accident, Mrs. Haraldsen found a deep and personal faith, «talking to the Lord as to her best friend».

Dagny and Karl Haraldsen decided that the only way to help them getting on with life again was to have another child. The labour started in the afternoon on Sunday 4 July 1937 and Karl, who had been at the beach with Haakon and Gry – it was a very warm July day – returned home around five thirty and drove his wife to the Red Cross Clinic in Frederik Stangs gate. The little boy who died had been a Sunday child (and had died on a Sunday as well, which was not commented on in the biography, though) and now it was Sunday once more. Dagny really wanted that the new child to become a Sunday child as well. The midwife thought she would make it. At 8.30 p.m. a baby girl was born. «People around me were moaning about the heat,» Mrs. Haraldsen recalled, «but I was in Heaven. I was there with the little girl. A Sunday child is supposed to be lucky, it is something especially bright with a Sunday child.» The little girl resembled her late brother. Dagny Haraldsen thought everything was meant to be.

The story about the tragic accident and Dagny Haraldsen’s words are interesting. As the biography suggests, she and her husband were not planning to have any more children after Karl Herman was born. When he died, they thought the best way to move on was to have another child. The future Queen of Norway was born around 13 months after the tragedy struck. How different Norwegian royal history would have become if it had not been for the tragic death of a 7 years old boy...

  • Aftenposten 8 June 1936 No. 280 (morning edition, at present not available at Aftenposten’s online archives)
  • Aftenposten 8 June 1936 No. 281 (evening edition)
  • Aftenposten 9 June 1936 No. 283
  • Aftenposten 10 June 1936 No. 284
  • Aftenposten 11 June 1936 No. 286
  • Bratteli, Randi/Lange-Nielsen, Sissel. Sonja: Norges Kronprinsesse, Oslo: Aschehoug, 1983
  • Morgenbladet 8 June 1936 No. 157
  • Morgenbladet 9 June 1936 No. 158
  • Vestre Akers lensmannsdistrikt (Aker kriminaldommer, skifte- og auksjonsforvalterembete, Vestre Aker, Hba 0006 18.05.1935–16.04.1937)

1 comment:

  1. I am sorry, but I do not quite understand what you mean when you write that "The accident can be said to have had a more direct impact on the history of the Norwegian royal house than we have perhaps realized earlier". The accident's direct impact on the history of the Norwegian royal house is of course that the Queen would not have been born if her brother had not been killed, but this has been a well-known fact ever since Sissel Lange-Nielsen's and Randi Bratteli's authorised book on the then Crown Princess was published nearly thirty years ago.

    And it does not seem correct to me to say that Karl A. Haraldsen "died at an early age". He was 70, which was just about exactly the life expectancy for men in 1959. He died suddenly, but not at an early age.