The early phases of the October rescue were improvisational. When Danish civil servants at several levels in different ministries learned of the German plan to round up all Danish Jews, they independently pursued various measures to find the Jews and hide them. Some simply phoned friends and asked them to go through telephone books and warn those with Jewish-sounding names to go into hiding. Many doctors admitted their Jewish patients into hospital under false diagnoses. Ordinary citizens took them into their homes, and resistance groups met to decide how to get them out of the country.

Although the majority of the Danish Jews were in hiding, eventually they would have been caught if safe passage to Sweden could not be secured. Sweden had earlier turned away the Norwegian Jews to their certain deaths and it was feared that they would do the same to the Danish Jews. Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist, who had escaped to Sweden in 1943, made a determined stand for his fellow countrymen. When Bohr reached the shores of Sweden he was told to board a plane immediately for the United States where he was enlisted to work on the Manhattan Project. Bohr told the Swedish officials, and eventually the king, that until they announced over their air waves and through their press that their borders would be open to receive the Danish Jews, he wasn't going anywhere. Bohr wrote of these events himself. On 2 October 1943 Swedish radio broadcast that Sweden was ready to offer asylum.

small boatThe Jews were smuggled out of Denmark over the Øresund strait from Zealand to Sweden—a passage of varying time depending on the specific route and the weather, but averaging under an hour on the choppy winter sea. Some were transported in large fishing boats of up to 20 tons, but others were carried to freedom in rowboats or kayaks.

Some of the fishermen assisting in the rescue charged money to transport Jews to Sweden, while others took payments only from those who could afford passage. The Danish underground took an active role in organizing the rescue and providing financing, mostly from wealthy Danes who donated large sums of money to the effort.

escape routeDuring the first days of the rescue action,the Jews were moved into the many fishing harbors on the Danish coast for rescue; however, the Gestapo became suspicious of activity around harbors and on the night of October 6, about 80 Jews were caught hiding in the loft of the church at Gilleleje. Their hiding place had been betrayed by a Danish girl who was in love with a German soldier. Subsequent rescues had to take place from isolated points along the coast. While waiting their turn, the Jews took refuge in the woods and in cottages away from the coast, out of sight of the Gestapo.

Some of the refugees never made it to Sweden; a few chose to commit suicide, some were captured by the Gestapo en route to their point of embarkation, others were lost at sea when vessels of poor seaworthiness capsized, and still others were intercepted at sea by German patrol boats. Danish harbor police and civil police often cooperated with the rescue effort. During the early stages, the Gestapo was undermanned and the German army and navy were called in to reinforce the Gestapo in its effort to prevent transportation taking place; but by and large they proved less than enthusiastic in the operation and frequently turned a blind eye to escapees.