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The Shetland Bus

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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 the odds.

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 purpose.

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 or not.

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 Lofoten.

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 independently.

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 ago.

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 found.

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 following tribute;

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 bunch.

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 toasting machines.

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
Fellow
Queens’ College
Cambridge
www.scotsatwar.org.uk

David Howarth, The Shetland Bus, The Shetland Times Ltd., Lerwick, 1998.
Kaare Iversen, Shetland Bus Man, The Shetland Times Ltd, Lerwick, 2004.
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.

   
 
 

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