A Lecture given at
the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh on 26th July 2005 as
part of the “Scotland’s Secret War” series.
I would like to present to you a very exceptional local history
story; one tiny aspect of a very exceptional and historic
international relationship – the story of the Shetland Bus and the
relationship between Scotland and Norway.
But what I have to say is not just a story; it was real and it
happened and the Shetland Bus, like the evacuation at Dunkirk, the
Cockleshell Heroes, the Arnhem landings, and many others,
exemplifies the resourcefulness of human kind and the courage and
patriotism of those who are prepared to fight for freedom, whatever
Sometime ago I gave a presentation on the Battle of Loos 1915 and as
I was proceeding confidently through my script a wee hand went up at
the back and a voice crackled out, “Na, Na, hen it wasn’e like
that!” So having learnt from experience, I would ask at the outset
that if anybody reads this who was part of the Shetland Bus
operation in any way, and sees that I have made an error in this
story, please be in touch. I am happy to be corrected, particularly
by those with first hand experience.
The Shetland Bus is the name given to those operations, using
volunteer Norwegian crewmen, based in Shetland, and masterminded
from London, that ran a clandestine route in and out of Nazi
Occupied Norway between 1941 and 1945.
These operations took place north of 60 degrees north, across some
of the most dangerous waters in Europe. At these latitudes, in
winter, there is around 18 hours of darkness and frequently
appalling sea conditions, and in summer, the reflected light of the
sun provides continuous daylight, what Shetlanders call the “Simmer
Dim”, better but unpredictable sea conditions but no cover except
intermittent cloud or fog. Norway is at least 200 miles away from
Shetland across open sea. Aberdeen is a similar distance. To operate
successfully in such circumstances in wartime demands skills of
seamanship and courage well above that normally required. Many of
these skills were everyday requirements of a nation of fishermen and
seafarers such as the Norwegians.
It also demanded a detailed knowledge of the Norwegian coast. The
whole of the western seaboard of Norway is outstandingly beautiful.
From the Skagerrak to the North Cape it is indented by Norway’s
famous fjords. Deep, sheltered and outstandingly picturesque these
areas have been the inspiration for writers, poets and musicians for
many centuries and they form part of the very fabric of Norwegian
society. In 1940 they were being used for a much more sinister
Germany invaded Norway on 9th April 1940. Using naval, land and air
forces and paratroopers Germany achieved strategic and tactical
surprise. Norwegian/ German relations had historically been good and
before the invasion the Norwegian Army had not been mobilised. In
1940 the German objective was to secure the northern flank of
Europe, to gain access to rich mineral resources and to set up key
naval bases for submarines and capital ships.
Convinced that an invasion of Norway was impossible in the face of
British sea power, and without adequate or reliable intelligence,
both the British and the Norwegians were unprepared. In spite of
this, Norwegian Coastal Artillery put up an extraordinary resistance
and King Haakon VII twice rejected the German ultimatum to
surrender. As the reality of what was happening began to dawn
British, French and Polish forces were assembled and landed on the
Norwegian coast. But they were too little and too late and on the
7th of June 1940, three days after the end of the Dunkirk operation,
the King of Norway and his Government were evacuated from Tromso
aboard HMS Devonshire and sailed for the Clyde.
The Norwegian campaign had been costly for both sides. The Germans
lost 5,500 men, 200 aircraft and a crucial number of important
modern warships. To occupy Norway’s 125,000 square miles they would
need 323,000 troops.
The Allies lost 1,800 Norwegians, 500 Poles and French and 4,500
British lives. The shipping losses were also important to the
Allies: 2 submarines, 9 Destroyers, 2 coastal defence vessels, 2
cruisers and most important of all the Aircraft Carrier HMS Glorious
which went down to the guns of the Scharnhorst with the loss of
1,500 all ranks.
This then is the background against which this remarkable story
unfolds. It is now very difficult to appreciate the magnitude of
what had happened, to understand the determination and bravery of
the Norwegian people and to set in context this incredible operation
called, the Shetland Bus.
The occupation of Norway and the oppression which followed
immediately prompted a number of Norwegians to escape and make
landfall in the Orkneys and the Shetlands. In May 1940 34 boats
arrived in Lerwick carrying over 200 refugees including women and
children. They came in yachts, fishing boats, a freighter, small
pleasure craft, a steamer, a destroyer and even rowing boats. Most
important of all they brought with them their skills in seamanship,
their knowledge of the Norwegian coast, an independence of spirit
and a determination to fight.
With few resources at their disposal the British Admiralty’s Naval
Intelligence Division in co-operation with the Military Intelligence
Service of Norway’s Government in Exile and burgeoning Norwegian
Resistance Groups developed a plan to organise the transport of
Norwegian secret agents to and from Norway. The main objective of
these agents was to gather intelligence on German Naval movements.
Others carried out sabotage and training.
To lead this operation Major L H Mitchell was appointed. Renowned as
a man of brilliant ideas, great charm and the possessor of an
irrepressible sense of humour, he came north in December 1940 and
requisitioned Flemington House in Shetland as the operational
headquarters. Now known as Kergord, Flemington is famous for its
trees, an unusual sight in the windswept Shetland Islands. Here
gathered an exceptional cross section of society; an army officer,
Royal Naval Officers, Royal Norwegian Naval personnel, independent
minded fishermen, agents, saboteurs and refugees.
Following the losses in France and Norway they were forced to make
use of what they had in the way of boats. Most in the early days
were Norwegian fishing boats. These were remarkable craft and
exceptionally seaworthy. They all looked pretty well the same: two
masted wooden vessels, with a high bow and a large wheelhouse aft
but they were all subtly different; the Colin Archer type, the
Hardanger Cutter and the More Cutter. They were all fitted with a
single cylinder semi-diesel engine and a large exhaust pipe coming
out of the wheelhouse which made a distinctive, “tonk, tonk, tonk,
tonk” sound. The keel, frames and planking were all made out of fir
wood fastened with wooden pegs which made for an immensely strong
construction. In the beginning there were just six of these boats.
Nominally under the command of the local naval commander in Lerwick
the Norwegians demanded to be independent, to choose their own
skippers and not be subject to naval regulations. All were
volunteers. They were to all intents and purposes civilians, paid £4
a week with free food and lodging and a bonus of £10 for every trip
that they did to Norway. They were free to give a week’s notice and
leave and they were free to decide for themselves if they would sail
A small number of successful voyages were made in the spring of 1941
when operations ceased for the summer. At this point a young Royal
Naval Volunteer Reserve Officer was posted to the staff of the
operation. This was Lieutenant David Howarth RNVR to whom we owe the
magnificent account of what happened entitled, “The Shetland Bus”.
Howarth is remembered by his school and University friend Sir John
Crofton as a quiet, informal person who quickly became bored with
his ceremonial duties as Flag Officer to the Admiral Commanding the
Naval Base at Scapa Flow in Orkney and who volunteered for an
unnamed secret project which turned out to be the Shetland Bus.
Before the summer of 1941 was out the main part of the operation
moved to Lunna although Mitchell still lived at Flemington. Lunna
had a sheltered anchorage, a pier, an isolated position,
accommodation for 35 men and outhouses and stores for ammunition and
explosives. They were allocated a lorry, a shooting brake and a
small Ford car. British Sergeants, Almond, Sherwood and Olsen acted
as shore staff. Mr Norman Edwards was the shorthand typist and
cipherer and two local girls were cook and housemaid. Along with
Norwegian resistance fighters these few were set to take on the
Germans in Norway.
The first trip of the new season on 30th August 1941 was that of the
cutter Askel under her skipper August Naeroy taking a messenger to
Bergen. This trip was successful and a few days later the messenger
was picked up and returned to Shetland. Shortly after a party of
Norwegian flying officers were picked up from the Trondheim area and
two agents were delivered to Alesund. But it was clear that the
Germans were becoming more cautious and in September the Vita was
captured near to Trondheim and the crew were imprisoned.
It was at this time that Mitchell and Howarth organised the purchase
of Norwegian Naval uniforms for the crews in the hope that it would
give some protection if the men were captured. The problem was that
being egalitarian Norwegians they all wanted to dress alike! In the
end the skippers and some of the Engineers wore Petty Officers’ rig
and the rest were dressed as Ordinary Seamen.
In October 1941 the cutter Siglaos was attacked by German planes and
Neils Nesse was killed. He was brought home to Shetland and he is
buried in Lunna churchyard. Shortly after, the Nordsjoen, on a
mission to lay mines off the North west coast of Norway, sunk in
heavy weather, but the crew managed to evade the Germans and
returned home in a stolen fishing boat.
It was in this operation that the legendary Leif Andreas Larsen was
involved. Popularly known as “Shetlands” Larsen he had escaped from
Norway in February 1941 in the fishing boat Motig 1. He made 52
trips to Norway and as a holder of the Distinguished Service Order,
Distinguished Service Cross, Conspicuous Gallantry Medal and
Distinguished Service Medal and Bar and he was the most highly
decorated Naval Officer of the Second World War.
Over the Christmas and New Year of 1941/1942 the Shetland unit were
involved, reluctantly, in the raid by Commandos on the Lofoten
Islands. This raid featured another legendry Norwegian, Captain
Martin Linge, who was killed leading his men in the landing. As for
the Shetland crews in the Lofoten Raid, seven fishing boats were
assembled at Invergordon and Howarth was instructed by London to go
and pick them up. These boats were completely unsuitable for
Northern waters and only three could be got underway. However
another three were found from other harbours and the vessels finally
assembled at Lerwick.
Their mission was to sail 600 miles northeast into the Arctic Circle
and extinguish the navigation lights in the inner lead south of
After much delay and as the weather broke, they set sail. By that
evening three vessels had returned to Lerwick, three had taken
refuge in Luna and only one reached the Lofotens. It was impossible
to carry out the mission and the crew abandoned her and came back in
a British destroyer. Twenty-four hours later the three vessels
sheltering at Luna decided to try again. One was forced to turn back
after sailing for one hundred miles but the other two continued on
The largest of these vessels was the Havorn. For four days she
steamed continuously through snow and heavy seas, but the problem
was they lost their way and had to rely on dead reckoning. When they
made landfall nothing was recognisable. They rowed ashore and found
an old man but he said that he had never heard of Lofoten. Finally
early on the morning of New Years’ Eve 1941 they found their
destination, Reine. But the British were gone, the harbour was
deserted and they were told that the Germans had returned two days
Hearing another vessel coming into the fjord they quickly cast off
and made for home. They ran for eight hundred miles through terrible
weather and finally made landfall in Stornoway in the Isle of Lewis.
The other boat also arrived in the Lofotens after the British had
left. Found not to be seaworthy this boat was abandoned in the
Lofotens and the crew stole an old wooden freighter for the voyage
home. However the freighter was little better than their original
craft. In a few hours, in heavy weather, she had taken on a
considerable amount of water, the engine had to be stopped and her
steering gear broke. In desperation the crew rigged a hatch cover as
a square sail and a week later she made landfall in the Shetlands –
truly remarkable voyage of which their Norse ancestors would have
been justifiably proud.
By the end of the winter 1941/42 the men on Shetland had made 42
trips to Norway, landed 43 agents, picked up 9, landed 130 tons of
arms and equipment and brought 46 refugees to Shetland. Each time a
boat returned to the Shetlands the crew proudly and defiantly
sported a fir tree branch on top of the wheelhouse to confirm that
they had been home. In Norway these activities were widely referred
to as “the Shetland Bus”. But Lunna was no longer a secret and the
operation moved to Scalloway where there were repair facilities in
the shape of William Moore and Sons’ workshops. It was here that a
slipway was built which is still in use today.
But this success was not without loss when in November 1941 the Blia
went down in a storm with all hands, 7 crew and 36 refugees. There
was also terrible retribution taken against the Norwegian people. On
26th April 1942 two agents from Shetland, Arne Vaerum and Emil Hvaal,
shot and killed two Gestapo Officers in the village of Telavag. Arne
Varum was killed in the operation but these men belonged to the Free
Norwegian Army Independent Company known as the Linge Company.
Knowing this the Germans retaliated by sending the entire male
population of the village of Telavag to a concentration camp, where
thirty-one died, the women and children were interned and the
village was raised to the ground.
The next season saw the launch of the attack on the 40,000-ton
German Battleship Tirpitz. This vessel represented so much danger to
Allied shipping that desperate measures to sink or at least disable
her were required. The skipper chosen was Leif Larsen and the vessel
the cargo vessel, the Arthur. The plan was to take two Midget
submarines, codenamed Chariots, and their crews, across to the
Norwegian coast on the deck of the Arthur, to submerge the
submarines and then tow them up the Trondheim Fjord slung beneath
the hull until they were within striking distance of the ship.
Modifications to the Arthur included a stronger derrick, a secret
compartment and bolts and towing gear beneath the hull. Her cover
story was that she was carrying a cargo of peat.
The Arthur left Lunna on 26th October 1942 with the Chariots lashed
to her upper deck. They reached the mouth of the fjord, launched the
Chariots, passed the German checkpoints and began the tow. Just five
miles short of the target the cable suddenly parted and the chariots
were lost. The crew of the Arthur and the naval personnel with them
were now in great danger and having lost the Chariots they had lost
their reason for being there. The Arthur was scuttled on November
1st 1942 and the party set out on foot to reach the Swedish border
about 40 miles away seeking the sanctuary of friendly Norwegian farm
houses at night. Just short of the Swedish Border they were
ambushed, and Able Seaman Bob Evans was shot and captured. The
others scattered, successfully reached the border and next day they
crossed into Sweden. Able Seaman Evans was still alive, in uniform,
badly wounded and with badly frostbitten feet. He was nursed to
health by the Germans, interrogated and then shot.
Shortly before the Tirpitz operation was mounted a twenty-six foot
clinker built open boat, the Sjo under Per Blystad and Mindur Berge
set out for a month’s trip to the Norwegian coast. Their aim was to
gather intelligence and carry out reconnaissance in preparation for
the new season. They set out confidently in August 1942. These were
two very able men of the sea and two very likeable characters and
when they did not return concern grew for their safety.
It has never been discovered what actually happened to these men.
They reached the coast and ran up the sound between the mainland and
the island of Maloy, however as they came south they ran into a
checkpoint and were captured. The Germans took them to Bergen where
they were imprisoned. Some months later they were taken away and
although it was thought that they were being sent to Germany they
were never heard of again and no further trace of them has ever been
In November 1942 Mitchell left Shetland. In the winter of 1943 a
number of missions failed and 24 out of the total of 60 members of
the unit were lost. It was too high a price to pay. The Shetland
boats were now conspicuous for the amount of fuel they had and the
Germans had set up the control systems around what they called
Festung Norwegen – Fortress Norway.
Motor Torpedo Boats were already being used by the Royal Navy out of
Lerwick to mount hit and run raids on German convoys but no British
craft were available until 3 were allocated by the US Navy to the
Shetland operation, the Hessa, the Hitra and the Vigra. They arrived
in Scalloway in the autumn of 1943 on the orders of Admiral Harold R
Stark USN, Commander-in-Chief US Naval Forces Europe who paid the
The dangerous tasks these hardy Norwegians performed (for the most
part unsung) all during the war in their small craft, plying between
the British Isles and Norway, constitute a splendid page in their
country’s generations of brave men who have gone down to the sea in
ships. I am proud to add my tribute to them. They were a splendid
It was like a revolution. These boats were 110 feet in length with
two twelve hundred horse power diesel engines, four times as fast as
the fishing boats, they cruised at 17 knots and had a top speed of
22 knots. To the amazement of the men from Shetland the MTBs were
equipped with central heating, an oil fired galley, refrigerators,
ice fountains, wine lockers, hot and cold showers and electric
In the winter of 1943/44 these boats completed 34 operations and in
the winter of 1944/45, the last of the war, they did 80, all without
loss. By the end of hostilities Naval Intelligence had 60 radio
transmitters operating successfully in Norway. 350 refugees, most of
them fugitives from the Gestapo, had been rescued and the Shetland
Bus was part of a complex chain that had tied down 284,000 German
troops in Norway as the Allies successfully landed on the beaches of
Normandy and began the reconquest of Europe. On May 7th 1945
thousands of armed men appeared in Norwegian towns disciplined,
equipped, clothed and armed as the result of a hundred men, a few
fishing boats and three MTBs affectionately known as The Shetland
Bus. It was indeed a remarkable achievement.
Dr D M Henderson
David Howarth, The Shetland Bus, The Shetland Times Ltd., Lerwick,
Kaare Iversen, Shetland Bus Man, The Shetland Times Ltd, Lerwick,
Sir John Crofton, private reminiscences in possession of the author.
Mr Peter Cochrane, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, oral
reminiscences of wartime Shetland.
Records of Special Operations Executive, Public Record Office, Kew,
London. HS7/182, HS8/790, 8/800, 8/821, 8/829, 8/979 and 8/980.